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Environmental Impacts

The processes of dismantling and disposing of electronic waste in the third world lead to a number of environmental impacts. Liquid and atmospheric releases end up in bodies of water, groundwater, soil, and air and therefore in land and sea animals – both domesticated and wild, in crops eaten by both animals and human, and in drinking water.

One study of environmental effects in Guiyu, China found the following:

Airborne dioxins – one type found at 100 times levels previously measured
Levels of carcinogens in duck ponds and rice paddies exceeded international standards for agricultural areas and cadmium, copper, nickel, and lead levels in rice paddies were above international standards
Heavy metals found in road dust – lead over 300 times that of a control village’s road dust and copper over 100 times.

The environmental impact of the processing of different electronic waste components:

E-Waste Component Process Used Potential Environmental Hazard
Cathode ray tubes (used in TVs, computer monitors, ATM, and more) Breaking and removal of yoke, then dumping Lead, barium and other heavy metals leaching into the ground water and release of toxic phosphor
Printed circuit board (a thin plate on which chips and other electronic components are placed) De-soldering and removal of computer chips; open burning and acid baths to remove final metals after chips are removed. Air emissions as well as discharge into rivers of glass dust, tin, lead, brominated dioxin, beryllium cadmium, and mercury
Chips and other gold plated components Chemical stripping using nitric and hydrochloric acid and burning of chips Hydrocarbons, heavy metals, brominated substances discharged directly into rivers acidifying fish and flora. Tin and lead contamination of surface and groundwater. Air emissions of brominated dioxins, heavy metals and hydrocarbons
Plastics from printers, keyboards, monitors, etc. Shredding and low temp melting to be reused Emissions of brominated dioxins, heavy metals and hydrocarbons
Computer wires Open burning and stripping to remove copper Hydrocarbon ashes released into air, water and soil.


What is hazardous in E-Waste:

- Americium:
The radioactive source in smoke alarms. It is known to be carcinogenic.

- Mercury:
Found in fluorescent tubes (numerous applications), tilt switches (mechanical doorbells, thermostats), and flat screen monitors. Health effects include sensory impairment, dermatitis, memory loss, and muscle weakness. Exposure in-utero causes fetal deficits in motor function, attention and verbal domains. Environmental effects in animals include death, reduced fertility, and slower growth and development.

- Sulphur:
Found in lead-acid batteries. Health effects include liver damage, kidney damage, heart damage, eye and throat irritation. When released into the environment, it can create sulphuric acid.

- BFRs:
Used as flame retardants in plastics in most electronics. Includes PBBs, PBDE, DecaBDE, OctaBDE, PentaBDE. Health effects include impaired development of the nervous system, thyroid problems, liver problems. Environmental effects: similar effects as in animals as humans. PBBs were banned from 1973 to 1977 on. PCBs were banned during the 1980s.

- Cadmium:
Found in light-sensitive resistors, corrosion-resistant alloys for marine and aviation environments, and nickel-cadmium batteries. The most common form of cadmium is found in Nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries. These batteries tend to contain between 6 and 18% cadmium. The sale of Nickel-Cadmium batteries has been banned in the European Union except for medical use. When not properly recycled it can leach into the soil, harming microorganisms and disrupting the soil ecosystem. Exposure is caused by proximity to hazardous waste sites and factories and workers in the metal refining industry. The inhalation of cadmium can cause severe damage to the lungs and is also known to cause kidney damage. Cadmium is also associated with deficits in cognition, learning, behavior, and neuromotor skills in children.

- Lead:
Solder, CRT monitor glass, lead-acid batteries, some formulations of PVC. A typical 15-inch cathode ray tube may contain 1.5 pounds of lead,[3] but other CRTs have been estimated as having up to 8 pounds of lead.[26] Adverse effects of lead exposure include impaired cognitive function, behavioral disturbances, attention deficits, hyperactivity, conduct problems and lower IQ

- Beryllium Oxide:
Filler in some thermal interface materials such as thermal grease used on heatsinks for CPUs and power transistors, magnetrons, X-ray-transparent ceramic windows, heat transfer fins in vacuum tubes, and gas lasers.

- Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA):
Found in Non-stick cookware (PTFE), used as an antistatic additive in industrial applications, and found in electronics. PFOAs are formed synthetically through environmental degradation and, in mice, after oral uptake. Studies in mice have found the following health effects: Hepatotoxicity, developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, hormonal effects and carcinogenic effects. Studies have found increased maternal PFOA levels to be associated with an increased risk of spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) and stillbirth. Increased maternal levels of PFOA are also associated with decreases in mean gestational age (preterm birth), mean birth weight (low birth weight), mean birth length (small for gestational age), and mean APGAR score.

- Hexavalent chromium:
A known carcinogen after occupational inhalation exposure.

There is also evidence of cytotixic and genotoxic effects of some chemicals, which have been shown to inhibit cell proliferation, cause cell membrane lesion, cause DNA single-strand breaks, and elevate Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) levels.

- DNA breaks can increase the likelihood of developing cancer (if the damage is to a tumor suppressor gene)
- DNA damages are a special problem in non-dividing or slowly dividing cells, where unrepaired damages will tend to accumulate over time. On the other hand, in rapidly dividing cells, unrepaired DNA damages that do not kill the cell by blocking replication will tend to cause replication errors and thus mutation
- Elevated Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) levels can cause damage to cell structures (oxidative stress)


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