E-waste, or electronic waste, gets its own special name because it’s a particularly difficult type of waste to deal with. It refers to all the electronics that are thrown away, including computers, televisions, printers, phones, datapads, and all similar devices.
While most waste can be safely recycled or disposed of in landfills, etc., e-waste has different challenges. Today’s complex electronics are made with a variety of metals and chemicals, many of them toxic. When handled carelessly or salvaged improperly for components, these dangerous materials leak out and cause problems…sometimes, serious problems to humans.
The full extent of the danger of e-waste pollution isn’t certain yet, but studies have uncovered some of the damage this type of pollution is already doing. Here’s what you should know.
Inflammation and Oxidation
Let’s start with some basic facts: Around 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste is created each year, and the amount of waste continues to grow year over year (think of all the obsolete computers and phones people throw away when they get new ones). Much of this e-waste is exported to China and Africa, which is cheap, but these locations have very poor recycling and disposal processes. As a result, pollutants from this waste are released into the environment, especially into the air. The worst pollutants are toxic organic particles that linger for long periods of time, and heavy metals, which are naturally bad for the body.
What do these organic compounds and metals do? A study published by scientists looked at lung cells that had been exposed to the air from e-waste disposal sites. They found key chemical signatures that indicated inflammation of the tissue, and chemical reactive molecules that can cause damage through oxidation (this where we get the term “antioxidants” from).
Essentially, this means that these materials have been proven to cause tissue damage, at least in the lungs.
P53 Gene Response
The research also showed evidence of p5s gene expression. Without getting too technical, this is a gene that activates when it has to heal damaged cells and prevent them from going crazy (and creating cancers). The gene is used as an indicator for particularly dangerous substances because it’s a sign that some serious cell damage is occurring – damage that could eventually lead to cancers, especially if it continues over time.
Toxic Metals and Child Development
The World Health Organization has also spoken up about e-waste problems and has created several initiatives to explore alternative solutions for e-waste. The organization’s biggest concern is the effect on children, due to the many toxic metals involved. You see, in the cheapest recycling centers, cables and components are simply burnt away to expose copper and other more valuable metals beneath. This releases many hazardous substances and traces heavy metals into the air (the process itself can also be dangerous to the workers, but that’s a different concern).
While the elements released can vary, many heavy metals are required to make crystal displays, circuit boards, and lithium-ion batteries, as well as the plastics used in manufacturing electronic devices. Common toxic substances include lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chlorine, and bromine.
Over time, children and adults are both exposed to these substances. However, children are at particular risk because their environmental intake (air, water, etc.) is much larger compared to their weight than adults, so substances have a stronger effect. They’re also still growing: Immune, nervous, reproductive and digestive systems are all in development and all very sensitive to toxic substances. This can lead to serious growth issues over time, as has been seen in the past when children have been exposed to toxic substances from other sources like pesticides, etc. E-waste itself has been linked to thyroid dysfunction, birth problems or defects, behavioral changes, and more.
At this point, you may be wondering, “This is why e-waste recycling centers should be placed far away from people and carefully run by professionals, right?” Unfortunately, the cheap centers where most of the e-waste is sent in areas like China are exactly the opposite. These recycling centers are often based on villages or even inside family homes. This maximizes exposure of toxins to children and adults alike and is really the worst-case scenario at the moment. One of the efforts in controlling e-waste is working with these communities to set up safer recycling centers and adopting better recycling techniques than just burning scrap, but the process is slow.
It’s also worth noting that poor recycling or bad disposal techniques result in these hazardous byproducts leaking into the surrounding environment. These byproducts may not immediately reach humans, but they do have an impact on the ecosystem. This is true of the toxic metals, but as the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences notes, primitive recycling also releases a lot of smoke with hydrocarbons and dioxins, which can be harmful to the environment even if no humans breathe them in. These problems can affect the viability of living in an area, growing crops, and more.
If you have e-waste that you or your business needs to dispose of, we can help! Stream Recycling specializes in dealing with e-waste in safe and legal ways, recycling and reusing what we can while properly disposing of the rest. We also offer a variety of solutions for electronics packaging, data storage management, and more. Let us know if we can help you.