Recent Headlines: Occupational Risks for US Electronics Recyclers; Counterfeit Electronics; & Tracking E-waste Exports

It has been another interesting month for sustainable electronics. Here are a few highlights:

NIOSH highlights occupational health & safety risks for US electronics recyclers

On July 24, Resource Recycling announced the release of a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report that I have long awaited, having heard about the study at a conference several months ago. The report details results from analyzing air, surface, and employee blood samples from an undisclosed US electronic scrap recycling facility. The study also entailed interviews with employees to determine possible improvements for health and safety procedures. From the report: “The Health Hazard Evaluation Program received a request from a health and safety manager at an electronic scrap recycling facility…We evaluated air, surfaces, blood, and urine for metals…We also evaluated noise exposures. We found overexposures to lead, cadmium, and noise. Some employees had blood lead levels above 10 ug/dl. We provided recommendations to prevent these exposures to employees, and to prevent unintentionally taking metals home to family members.” Lead was detected on clothing and skin of workers, and on various surfaces throughout the facility.

We often hear about risks associated with informal recycling operations in other countries in the media, but seldom, if ever, hear about risks to US workers in formal recycling operations. We also tend to take for granted that people know about the dangers of exposure to lead because of lead-based paint and the outreach associated with that—it’s really stunning to read this report and realize how big an issue the lead associated with electronics reclamation can be. We can’t assume that recycling workers are properly trained on the hazards and how to avoid contamination. A 13-point list of recommendations was drawn up to respond to NIOSH’s concerns, including updating the ventilation system, segregating CRT glass breaking areas and a remodeling of facility work stations and procedures to ensure worker safety. All facilities that handle electronic waste would do well to review this list and consider their own situations.

E-waste exports and counterfeit electronics

On July 15th, the Coalition for American Electronics Recycling issued a press release stating that defense and technology experts expressed support for the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, or RERA (HR 2791, S.2090) at a recent Congressional briefing. Their reason? The export of non-functioning or untested electronics is allegedly providing feedstock for counterfeiters in countries like China. Scrap microchips may be washed and relabeled to look new by such counterfeiting operations. These counterfeit electronics could present threats to safety and security, if they were to be used like new components in equipment and fail. The example given in the press release is that of an airplane–you wouldn’t want an older, component, sold as if it were new, to fail mid-flight. Panelists argued that RERA would combat the problem of counterfeit electronics in defense supply chains by requiring the domestic recycling of nonworking, non-tested e-waste. Plus, it could create US jobs.

Global e-waste generation and export

Finally, a new report published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, entitled Tracking the Global Generation and Exports of e-Waste. Do Existing Estimates Add up? shows that nearly a quarter of e-waste discarded in developing countries flows into just seven developing countries in 2005, with potential risks to environmental and human health in those countries. Those developing countries included China, India and five West African countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin and Liberia. Researcher Knut Breivik and colleagues analyzed data from many studies to determine more reliable estimates than previously reported, highly variable estimates for global e-waste flows.

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Author: Joy Scrogum

Joy is a Sustainability Specialist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has worked on developing & maintaining online resources for the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable since 2001. She also currently coordinates the Sustainable Electronics Initiative & works on Zero Waste Illinois projects, including the Illini Gadget Garage and the Green Lunchroom Challenge. Key past projects include coordinating the International Sustainable Electronics Competition, developing & teaching ENG 498 "Sustainable Technology: Environmental & Social Impacts of Innovations," & Greening Schools, which focused on making K-12 facilities & curricula more sustainable.