Most people blithely dispose of old electronic equipment without any thought to the environmental impact. But, if such equipment ends up in a landfill or an incinerator, toxic chemicals can be released into the environment.
Electronic equipment, such as computers and monitors, may contain lead, mercury, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium. A Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitor may contain 4 to 5 pounds of lead4. Even the newer flat panel Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) monitors will contain hazardous materials, though they don't need the large amounts of lead required in the heavier CRT monitors, which require the lead to shield the user from X-ray radiation generated by the monitor. Mercury and lead have long been known to cause neurological damage. Some have speculated that the lead in wine storage vessels, food, and plumbing used by the Roman ruling classes was a major contributing factor in the downfall of the Roman empire. Though the Romans were aware of the serious health problems that could be caused by lead, they used it for many purposes and didn't consider the long-term implications of everyday use. Modern Americans use 10 times as much lead per person per year than the ancient Romans did before the downfall of Rome5.
Mercury, too, can have devastating effects on the human body. Many may be familiar with the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The reason madness was associated with hatters is that mercury was commonly used in the fur, felt, and hat industries of a few centuries ago7. When Lewis Carroll published Alice in Wonderland in 1865, mercury was widely used in the creation of the felt hats worn in England at that time and the phrase "mad as a hatter had been in common use for almost 3 decades. The effects of mercury poisoning on hatters included erratic, flamboyant behavior, excessive drooling, mood swings, and various debilities. A hatter might developer what were known as "hatter's shakes", which were characterized by severe and uncontrollable muscular tremors and twitching limbs. Hatters with advanced cases of mercury poisoning sufferred from hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms8.
Of the other harzardous substances in computers, hexavalent chromium (trivalent Chromium is actually an important component of a human diet) has been shown to cause high blood pressure, iron-poor blood, liver disease, and nerve and brain damage in animals. The movie Erin Brockovich is based on a true story of how Ms. Brockovich brought to public attention the environmental contamination in the town of Hinkley in the Mojave Desert resulting from the use of hexavalent chromium as an anti-corrosive in the cooling tower of a gas compressor station in the town. Residents of the town had been experiencing an array of health problems, such as liver, heart, respiratory and reproductive failure, Hodgkin disease, frequent miscarriages, and cancers of the brain, kidney, breast, uterus, and gastrointestinal systems at an alarming rate. As a result of Ms. Brockovich's actions, the town's residents were successful in seeking damages from PG&E, which was responsible for the gas compressor station9. But no amount of money can bring a loved one back from the dead or restore lives ruined by devastating health problems.
Cadmium, also found in computers, is a known carcinogen and chronic exposure to dust or fumes containing cadmium can irreversibly damage the lungs. Eating food or drinking water contaminated with high levels of cadmium severely irritates the stomach, causing vomiting and diarrhea. An accumulation of cadmium in the body can lead to kidney failure. Cadmium stays in the body a long time and can build up in the body to dangerous levels through many years of low level exposure10. For further information on the health risks posed by exposure to cadmium, see the Cadmium entry at the Corrosion Doctors website.
So, if you don't want to contaminate your own or someone else's air or water, you should not just dump your outdated computers, monitors, and other electronic equipment in the trash.
The Your Planet section of an article, Is Your Computer Killing You?, lists a number of alternatives to simply throwing the equipment in the trash. An 800 number, 1-800-CLEANUP, is listed for state-specific information for the U.S. on how to safely discard such equipment. You can also visit Earth 911 for general recycling information as well as information specifically related to the disposal of cell phones and computers.
The InformationWeek article also lists steps you can take to minimize health problems, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and eyestrain, associated with prolonged computer use.
Some computer manufacturers, such as Dell, have their own recycling programs. Dell will recycle your unwanted PC or computer electronics for a flat fee per item. If you buy a new Dell desktop or laptop, you can select the free recycling option at the time of purchase to recycle your old PC and monitor.
Is Your Computer Killing You?
By Lee Hamrick
Small Business Pipeline
January 18, 2006
- Earth 911
- Dell Recycling
Disposal of Old Computer Equipment
A Mounting Environmental Problem
By Michael J. Meyer, Waleed Abu El Ella, and Ronald M. Young
The CPA Journal
A Publication of the New York State Society of CPAs
Lead Poisoning: A Historical Perspective
By Jack Lewis
EPA Journal - May 1985
United States Environmental Protection Agnecy (EPA)
Lead in history
Mad as a hatter
Chromium health and environment
Cadmium health and environment