Metal in your gadgets: Why you should be scared
MANILA, Philippines – The metals and compounds inside your gadget can cause cancer, lower IQ, ruin kidneys, and lead to pregnancy complications.
These are just some of the health impacts of lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants that are found inside most electronics, including laptops, television sets, and smart phones.
"There's a very strong connection between lead and your IQ, so if you are exposed to lead, especially for the children, the children under study will exhibit lower IQ than the rest of their cohort who has not been exposed to the lead," said Environmental Science professor Abigail Favis.
Her presentation on the health threats of electronic waste was given during a March 18 forum on the international regulation of toxics held in Ateneo de Manila University.
During the forum, environmentalists and health advocates called on the government to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment. It is a new provision in the Basel Convention that prohibits wealthy nations from dumping hazardous wastes into poorer nations.
Lead, one of the toxics most harmful to humans, is commonly found in circuit boards, cathode ray tubes, computer monitors, television sets and car batteries. Lead targets the brain and the rest of the neurological system.
Sterility and infertility, as well as pregnancy complications like stillbirths, premature births, and miscarriage, have also been strongly correlated with lead exposure.
The toxic metal affects the formation of blood. "That's why anemia is also one of the related symptoms or manifestations of lead poisoning," explained Favis.
The metal cadmium targets the circulation of kidneys. It can be found in lithium cadmium batteries, electronic switches and relay systems.
Cadmium poisoning can thus lead to osteoporosis even in young, healthy individuals. The Japanese-named disease itai-itai (ouch ouch) is a manifestation of cadmium poisoning. The cadmium reduces calcium in the body, making bones so brittle they break when the person coughs.
Testicular necrosis, or the death of cells in male sexual organs, is another result of extreme cadmium poisoning.
Favis said the toxic even causes cancer: "It has been proven to be carcinogenic. The common route of exposure to cadmium is inhalation. Aside from electronic waste, you can get it from cigarette-smoking so most of the time it leads to lung cancer."
Meanwhile mercury is a neurotoxin that can lead to cognitive and behavioral problems. It is present in old lightbulbs, circuit boards, and electronic switches.
The dangerous metal targets kidneys and can cause renal failure. Extreme cases of mercury poisoning lead to flushed, peeling skin.
Among the most vulnerable to mercury are pregnant women and fetuses.
Toxics in our environment, food chain
Toxics are already in the Philippine environment and the food chain.
If disposed improperly, they can end up in landfills or in the environment. Eventually, they reach human communities – whether through the food chain or direct exposure.
Lead has been found in fish caught in Manila Bay. High concentrations of mercury and other pollutants have also been found in mussels and oysters in different parts of the country.
Though there is no way to prove this toxic content comes from electronic waste, the fact that more electronic waste is being generated and handled improperly can only compound the threat.
Communities in places where a lot of electronic waste end up are at high risk of getting contaminated by toxics.
A 2009 study reported that a type of toxic called brominated flame retardant (a chemical found in most plastics to keep your electronics from combusting) was detected in breast milk samples from mothers living in Payatas and Malate.
How to reduce contamination
The solution to the dangers of e-waste is to reduce generation of e-waste, said Favis: "If you have to buy electronics, make sure you use them well. Maintain them well so you can really extend its lifetime."
It's alarming how quickly consumers discard old gadgets for new ones, she said. "How often do you replace your gadgets? Do you replace it once it's broken? Or do you replace it because something new has come along? If it's still usable at least try to give it to someone who can use it instead of disposing it outright."
Legislation is also needed to make sure electronic waste is handled properly.
A new Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) administrative order creates a special category for electronic waste in the Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Control Act (Republic Act 1990).
This is a step forward in recognizing the unique threats of this kind of garbage. The law states that electronic waste should not be thrown into landfills but must be handled by government-accredited recycling facilities.
But national laws are not enough. Favis hopes electronics manufacturers can also take responsibility for their products.
"Some electronics companies are already making it possible for their customers to return their old, worn-out products so they don't end up contaminating human communities and the environment. More should do the same." – Rappler.com