Toxic Time-bomb Waits to Explode

In Your PC!

Do you know that computers, including your own PC, contain many hazardous chemicals? Maybe, you do. These poisons are constantly released into our environment ' with dangerous implications. 

How you may well ask: dumping, damage and degradation. 

First, the basics. It always pays to be safe than sorry. This holds good for safely and legally containing and reducing pollution caused by derelict and/or abandoned PCs. 

You are healthy ' this is what you feel. Right? Yes! Otherwise, you'd not be sitting in front of that big deadly 'explosive' which houses your PC. 

You may not believe it, but your PC contains a host of toxic chemicals. The worst part ' they are building up continually at a location in your vicinity, and you don't even know about it!

Here's the evidence. That PC manufacturers have 'potted' the toxins inside your machine is one thing. What adds to the hazard is the dumping of obsolete PCs, over a period of time; 'pounding' them in landfills is another. Dumping measures emit many dangerous substances, following which poisons from what was once your PC percolate into the environment ' the adjacent land, air, and water.

In the UK, reports evidence that up to 4 million PCs are dumped each year. It is also reported that 90 million PCs are already buried in landfills in the US. Add to this figure approximately 140,000 computers that become obsolete, practically everyday, somewhere, and it won't require a rocket scientist to envisage the gravity, or enormity, of the situation ' especially, by way of dumping ' in the next 2-3 years. Australia is also not exempt ' e-toxic waste, in the country, reports say, is three times more than municipal waste. Studies also suggest that Mumbai alone, in India, generated a huge amount of PC-waste (approximately 12,000 tons), last year. 

All this is, of course, peaceful dumping. Imagine what would happen to PCs in the event of a disaster such as the one that took place on 9/11! This will release enormous quantities of poisonous material. According to some reports PCs destroyed on 9/11 contained 200,000 lb of lead! Besides this, it's possible for a huge quantity of poisonous substances to have also escaped elsewhere, following the tragedy. This is nothing short of an extremely dangerous situation.

PC prices, as you know, have come down during the last few years. Which is good. But, do you know that a computer is quite expensive to make, from the environmental point-of-view? Experts estimate that a single PC takes 8-10 times its weight in fossil fuels, not to speak of a ton of purified water, to be made. This is not all. Polluting substances that emanate from the manufacturing process, albeit at low levels, needless to say, are also discharged into rivers and lakes with deleterious effects. You know the implications, don't you?

There is also an additional danger. Cut-throat competition, expanding repair costs, and regular model upgrading have also not given manufacturers adequate time to recycle. Reason enough why PC prices and, hence, profit margins have stayed low. This isn't, of course, quite inspiring for manufacturers to bell the cat in their polluting machines, as it were.

Let's look into the 'who's who' of poisons in an average PC model '

Lead from consumer electronics make up almost 40 per cent of the element that is being continually dumped into landfills and scrap yards. An average computer uses 4 lb of lead, which approximates 6 per cent of the total weight of a standard PC. As you'd know, lead in consumer electronics is mainly used for soldering of printed circuit boards (PCBs) and other electronic components. It is also used in the form of glass panels in computer monitors (cathode ray tubes: CRT), to shield you from radiation. Your PC screen may contain 2-5 gm of lead.

Although lead is one of the few natural substances not indispensable to life, the element can cause health problems even at very low levels. It can damage the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood system and kidneys. It is also not easy to render lead harmless, once it is mined. It can be recycled, yes, but recycled lead is not as efficient as mined lead.

Cadmium is found in electronic components such as resistors, infrared detectors, semi-conductors, some older versions cathode ray tubes, photocopiers, batteries etc., It is an extremely toxic metal, and can cause irreversible health problems. Cadmium affects the kidneys. It is primarily absorbed through breathing. It may also be absorbed through food, and can easily accumulate in amounts that cause symptoms of poisoning. Cadmium and lead have one thing in common, too ' they have both accumulated poison and they can become doubly hazardous, thanks to the dumping of old PCs.

Barium is another potential hazard. It is used in the front panel of a CRT to protect users from radiation. Barium can be released through air, water, soil, and also fish. Experts say that even relatively insignificant or short-term exposure to barium can result in brain affections, muscle weakness, and damage to the heart, liver, and spleen.

Mercury also poses a dangerous threat to our health. Approximately 20 per cent of the annual world consumption of mercury is used in electrical and electronic equipment. Mercury is used in (PC) PCBs, batteries, and liquid crystal (LCD) flat screens that are replacing the older, or larger, monitors with their cathode ray tubes. These screens, as you'd know, also contain lead. A powerful poison, mercury, in small amounts, is more toxic than lead, cadmium, and even arsenic! Agreed that mercury forms a very small part of your PC (0.0022 per cent), but it is still a big health risk. 

Among other equally dangerous poisons waiting to explode in your PC are tin, arsenic, chromium, selenium, manganese, and silver, not to speak of stabilizers and additives. Besides this, you also have to contend with polybrominated flame retardants found in cables and circuit boards. These have been implicated in damage to sexual development, growth and function, and also for posing a hazard in breast milk.

Think of this eventuality too. If computer materials are 'destroyed' by commercial burning, hazardous metals and cancer-causing organics like dioxins can be discharged into the air.

More than anything else, the form of dumping that is being used in many parts of our globe is a big farce. It is nothing short of the shocking, and scandalous. Unless stricter controls and laws are enforced worldwide as far as dumping and recycling are concerned, the toxic hazard of computers will only expand. You also know this, don't you ' that the developed world is making people in the developing world ill by having outsourced the job of dismantling their PCs to the latter? 

While it may comfort you that PC disposal laws worldwide is aimed to drive the polluter to pay, it holds another threat. Since manufacturers are expected to pay direct costs, it should come as no surprise if your new PC suddenly cost you a couple of thousand rupees more!

On the upside though, some developed nations have formulated a host of directives, bringing in stringent limits on the unsafe content of PCs sold in their countries. They also have laid down certain guidelines on how PCs could be best disposed of and/or recycled. India too, for instance, has its roster of guidelines ' but, they seem to sadly fall short when it comes to tracking and dealing with e-thrash.

Things you can do

It does not require an agency to be only concerned with obsolete PCs. You too ' as a consumer ' can contribute your bit to mitigate the problem. The important part ' you need to set a pattern for others to follow. This will cumulatively help spread the good word, or message. Here goes '

  • If you can't dispose for a reasonable price, it'd be better for you to donate your PC to a charitable cause or a social organization that can put it to good use. Only thing is you need to make sure that your PC is in working condition!
  • Consult a specialist disposal firm that deals with the removal and/or recycling of old computers. Please do not break the rules or law, and pollute the environment
  • If you wish to buy a new PC, opt for a recycled computer, or upgrade your old PC. This makes sound, environmental sense.  


More by :  Rajgopal Nidamboor

Top | Environment

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