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Are There Toxic Hazards On Your Desk?

What do lead, mercury, and hexavalent chromium have in common? They're all known - and deadly - toxins. They're also all found in the typical home and office computer.

Are There Toxic Hazards On Your Desk?

What do lead, mercury, and hexavalent chromium have in common? They’re all known — and deadly — toxins. They’re also all found in the typical home and office computer.

While these and a host of other toxic substances don’t pose much of a health risk while they’re sitting quietly undisturbed on your desk, they are dangerous when it comes time to dispose of them. It is then they become what’s commonly termed “e-waste.”

Each PC holds only tiny amounts of any one substance, usually only a few grams, but when combined with the hundreds of millions of computers in use around the world, that tiny amount grows into a serious health risk.

From Eye Irritation To Cancer

Consider the three substances mentioned: lead, mercury, and hexavalent chromium.

Older computer monitors used cathode-ray tubes for the display. These tubes typically contained hundreds of grams of lead. Lead is also used in batteries, plastic, paint, and packaging material. Yet, lead has been proven to cause damage to the brain, kidneys, and reproductive system. It can cause miscarriages. The American Environmental Protection Agency has determined that lead is a “probable human carcinogen,” meaning it may also cause cancer. (Thus, the current fear surrounding lead-contaminated products from China.)

Newer computers have reduced the use of lead by using flat-panel LCD screens. However, LCDs don’t emit light, so monitors using LCDs have an additional lighting mechanism. These backlit displays frequently contain mercury, which in some forms also causes nervous system and kidney damage.

Read The True Cost of Waste: Current Issues in Electronic Waste from Amazon.

Hexavalent chromium is often used as an anti-corrosion protective layer for metal parts. Does the name sound familiar? It’s the compound over which Erin Brockovich sued the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1993. (Her story was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts in 2000.) Contact with the eyes can cause permanent vision loss. Contact with the skin can cause skin ulcers and rashes. Fumes can irritate the nose, throat, and lungs, and cause ulcers in the mucous membranes of the nasal passages. And, of course, hexavalent chromium is a carcinogen.

What Manufacturers Can Do

You would think that with this potential for damage to the public health, computer manufacturers would simply stop using these chemicals. Some are. However, eliminating their use completely isn’t always easy or cost effective.

Arsenic, another familiar and deadly poison, is used during the production of high-performance glass for flat-panel LCD screens. If manufacturers stop using it, either the quality of displays will go down or the price will go up. Consumers are unlikely to respond favorably to either alternative.

Some manufacturers are switching from cheap plastics containing PVCs and requiring toxic flame retardants for use in computer cases, to aluminum and polycarbonates. But, again, this may increase costs.

Another way manufacturers are reducing the environmental footprint of their products is by sponsoring take-back programs and e-waste recycling. When a consumer buys a new computer, the manufacturer accepts the old machine, directing it through safe recycling systems so it doesn’t end up in a landfill.

Manufacturers are also building more energy efficient systems. LCD displays use less power than CRT monitors. Newer processors can power down when not under load, which also increases battery time for laptops and hand-held units. And improved sleep mode uses even less power.

What You Can Do

This is not just an issue for manufacturers. As consumers, we have a collective strength the industry ignores at its peril.

Do your homework before buying a new computer. Check the manufacturer’s web site to determine what steps they’re taking to reduce the use of hazardous materials, dispose of them safely, and increase energy efficiency. If you can’t find the information on their site, contact them and ask for it. If you’re not satisfied by their efforts, let them know and then emphasize your point by shopping elsewhere.

When it comes time to get rid of an old machine, don’t just leave it on the curb to end up in a landfill. Find a retailer or community program that will ensure the machine is properly recycled.

Even in sleep mode, computers, monitors, and printers still use power. If you’re not going to be using a device for an extended time, turn it off.

Individually, one computer is not a danger to the environment. And individually, one consumer is not a market force. But when it comes to our health and to the health of our planet, nothing is too small to matter.

Jules Smith is the Principal of LightningStrike Studios, a professional communications firm providing marketing content, corporate communications, and web site design. He writes across a wide range of topics, specializing in renewable energy and information technology.