The Dirty Underbelly of Your Sleek Electronics

By | Posted April 2nd, 2013

For some, it may be hard to name what exactly goes into a smartphone or computers processor.The design of the best and brightest in the industry hinge on thin and easy-to-use designs that invite users to come and play. But a heavy level of sophistication is required to send a text message, load a video, or read a webpage’s html.

Gold, silver, copper, and palladium are all components in your cell phone. For every million cell phones recycled, the recycler can harvest 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds of silver, 35,274 pounds of copper, and 33 pounds of palladium. In average 2012 market prices, that’s more than $2 million in gold, $384,000 in silver, $130,000 in copper, and $374,000 in palladium (all told, $2.89 million). That doesn’t include other metals like tin, zinc, and nickel, which can also be recycled and sold.

But they aren’t the only materials that bring your phone to life. Lead, mercury, and other heavy metals, along with various chemicals, are used in your phone and other electronics. Both lead and mercury have long been connected to neurological and kidney damage. Despite casings which make these compounds safe for everyday use, they still pose a serious threat to people and the environment.

The Dirty Underbelly of Your Sleek ElectronicsPhoto courtesy krunkwerke

The real danger of these vital electronic components is improper disposal. Most of the contaminants used in our technology are bioaccumulative, which means that it stays and builds in the environment or in a person. For all the danger they pose—not to mention waste of expensive, precious minerals—it’s a small wonder the U.S. doesn’t recycle them as religiously as paper or aluminum. Just how useful are they?

Lead is an incredibly versatile heavy metal; in electronics, it’s used in circuit boards, cathode ray tubes (CRTs), batteries, and as solder for stubborn metals. For all its usefulness, it comes with a heavy price. Inhalation or ingestion of lead can lead to anemia, nervous system damage, cardiovascular issues such as heightened blood pressure and hypertension, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems.

Mercury, which produces light when energized, is a main component for LCD screens and the tilt switch that powers off your laptop when you close it. And while it’s a great display for our phones, mercury is exceedingly toxic. It can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through skin and accumulates in the body, damaging the kidneys and brain.

Cadmium, which is used in nickel-cadmium (NiCad) rechargeable batteries and as a corrosion protector for metals, coatings, and solar cells, is equally toxic. Cadmium sulphide can also be used in CRTs. Most exposure comes from fume or dust inhalation. Chronic contact can result in kidney, bone, and lung disease, as well as cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, reproductive, and neurological damage.

Copper-beryllium alloys are used in your cell phone and battery connections, allowing your smartphone to be the glorious, multi-function device it is. Direct contact with beryllium can irritate the eyes and skin. Inhalation will irritate the lungs, and prolonged exposure can cause lung disease.

Halogenated flame retardants (HFRs)—brominated and chlorinated—are complex chemicals added to plastics in electronics to reduce fire risk. Five brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are used extensively, although two are being phased out of regular production. Production of BFRs doubled from 2008 to 2010, but due to growing health concerns and regulations, all BFRs are being phased out in home and electronic goods.

Their replacements, chlorinated flame retardants (CFRs)—most notably chlorinated Tris or TDCPP—aren’t shaping up to be safe either. Production of CFRs went from 10,000 metric tons annually in 2008 to 53,000 metric tons in 2010.

As the names get more complex, so do the effects. Hindered neurodevelopment, diabetes, immunotoxicity, thyroid disruption and cancer, lowered fertility, cryptorchidism (failure of a boy’s testes to drop), decreased bone density, damage to DNA, and erectile dysfunction have all been connected to or associated with high levels of various HFRs. When HFR-treated products are burned, they release dioxins and furans that are associated with multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, also prostate and testicular cancers.

The Dirty Underbelly of Your Sleek Electronics_2Photo Courtesy isox4

HFRs are inhaled and ingested in our everyday lives. You don’t need to burn something to get minimal exposure to HFRs—dust on treated products can expose you. Levels of pentaBDE, a banned BFR, in U.S. citizens are reaching levels considered dangerous to animals.

And these aren’t the only ones. Zinc, yttrium, chromium, nickel, antimony trioxide, tin, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and phthalates are also frequently used in electronics. Most are recognized as probable or known carcinogens.

Aside from HFRs, the likelihood of being exposed to these substances is low. Unless you’re nearby an unsafe plant or you go out of your way to burn electronics, you’re not at risk.

The real issue with e-waste is disposal. Electronics have become so sophisticated that they’re incredibly hard to break down one by one, let alone en masse.

Awareness about the dangers of dumping e-waste is growing, which means that recycling rates are going up. In the U.S., 25 states have some kind of electronics recycling program. California’s seven-year-old program has collected more than 580,000 tons of electronic waste.

The Dirty Underbelly of Your Sleek Electronics_3(Photo Courtesy curtis palmer)

While regulation—in the U.S., at least—is sparse, the market is working on it. Pressure from environmentally-minded organizations like Greenpeace, and European Union initiatives like WEEE and RoHS, seem to have kick-started companies into green initiatives. The bonus of a green product stamp isn’t too bad either.

If you look at, say, Samsung™ and Apple® green product policies, you’ll see that they have both begun to phase out many of these heavy metals in their products. While organizations like Greenpeace have questioned some companies’ words, BFRs are being phased out of most products—you can look at Greenpeace’s green product report cards.

But as these dangerous compounds and metals move out of the market, we still have old devices to worry about. As the big e-waste problem shifts from U.S. landfills to the backyards of developing and transitioning countries today.

“Informal” recycling doesn’t really vary from place to place. For operations in Agbogbloshie, the focus is burning. It’s low tech, done out in the wasteland that used to be wetland. For Guiyu, primitive acid baths are used to collect gold, along with coal fires used to burn off plastics and collect copper. Seelampur, in New Delhi, has similar processes. The air is becoming toxic. No safe disposal measures exist for these drums full of toxic chemicals. They contaminate soil or water sources.


While the market is slowly developing safer products, it’s still vital to dispose of your electronics safely. You don’t know who you could be hurting by giving your electronics away to less-than honest recyclers, like the company who sent old CRTs over to Guiyu after assuring their customers e-waste was recycled in the United States. Knowing where you’re sending your e-waste is half of the battle.