The dirty and dangerous side of tech

You're reading this article on a laptop, a desktop computer, a tablet, or maybe a smartphone. But if I were to ask you what was inside of your chosen device, you'd likely mention a hard drive, flash storage, RAM, or processor. Some might even say, "I have no idea. I think it operates by magic." Very few would mention arsenic, lead, or mercury. Yet most of our gadgets contain these or other elements and compounds that are dangerous to us and our environment.

Now, I'm not trying to be an alarmist. I love tech, and I always will. I want the lightest yet fastest laptop, the coolest smartphone, the biggest HDTV, and a professional sound system. But I can't remain ignorant to the inconvenient fact that there is poison in our tech. Our gadgets contain thousands of raw elements and mixed compounds—most of which remain inert while we use our gadgets, but they can do considerable harm before we buy our devices and after we've discarded them.

We take our smartphones, computers, and HDTVs for granted, assuming that their only price is the one we paid at the register. But our gadgets are filled with substances that damage the air and water where they're mined, manufactured, and disposed of. Some of the poisons get back to us.

The victims are usually workers living in distant countries, tragically, but not always. Some of these toxic substances leech out in the course of regular use, or when a gadget is damaged. A broken monitor or LCD HDTV, for instance, could expose you to mercury. And every contaminated river in the world empties its toxins into the same ocean that we all depend on.

The biggest dangers occur at three points in a product's life cycle:

Mining: Mining always destroys land, and often poisons the air and water around it. It may not be possible to remove certain scarce minerals from the ground without serious environmental consequences. And even if it is possible, it may not be profitable.

Manufacturing: You don't have to handle the basic ingredients that go into your tech. But someone does, often at high temperatures that release toxins into the air. Tech factory workers often suffer unusually high rates of cancer and other deadly diseases. As I was finishing this article, the South Korean government blamed Samsung for the breast cancer death of a factory employee.

End of life: You probably know better than to throw your old phone into the garbage. You recycle it. (Right?) But what does that actually mean? Far too often, it means that the phone gets shipped to a developing country where it's disassembled and the useful parts are reused. The rest, much of it toxic, is likely thrown onto an unprotected garbage heap.

Some good news is that many of these materials are banned, or tightly controlled, by the European Union. These restrictions can also significantly reduce or eliminate their use elsewhere, since companies would rather not deal with two separate manufacturing processes.

But Barbara Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition doesn't find that news all good. "They've stopped using certain chemicals, but what we don't know is what they've been using instead," she told me in a phone interview. "The replacements aren't necessarily better."

Image courtesy Photoroller/Shutterstock
Electronics awaiting recycling on Earth Day.

What can you do about this problem—aside from selling your car, growing your own food, and swearing off electricity?

First, take into account more than your finances when you consider buying a new gadget. Ask yourself if you could hold off a bit longer before making the purchase. If you buy a new phone every three years instead of every two, you've reduced the harm you do by a third.

Second, when you research what to buy, check the manufacturer's environmental standing. The Ecology Center and iFixIt put together a useful listing of smartphones (ranked according to their toxicity), which is available on HealthyStuff.org. For PCs, check the EPEAT Registry Search. And for a general view of companies' environmental practices, check out Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics.

The Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics

Third, get rid of your dead and obsolete tech in a responsible manner. Instead of having the manufacturer recycle it for you, visit e-Stewards' Find a Recycler page to see how you can responsibly recycle your tech. You'll find other useful information on the Electronics TakeBack Coalition's Recycle it Right page. (If your tech item is still in good working order, consider reselling or donating it.)

Finally, know what you're dealing with. Learn about the more dangerous materials used in your tech. Here are nine of the most troublesome materials—both pure elements and compounds—that are commonly found in tech gadgets. You may have most of them within arms' reach.

Rare earth minerals

You've likely never heard of promethium, yttrium, europium, or thulium. These are just four of the many elements known collectively as rare earth minerals, rare earth metals, or just rare earths. As the name implies, they're hard to come by.

Rare earth minerals are often found in smartphones.

And they're needed. Look close enough and you'll find them in smartphones, magnets, and HDTVs. They're also important ingredients in many "green" technologies including wind turbines, electric cars, and compact fluorescent light bulbs.

But mining and purifying rare earths is anything but green. The world's center for rare earth mining is the city of Baotou in inner Mongolia, where, according to a Guardian article, "The foul waters of the tailings pond contain all sorts of toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium which, if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs, and leukemia."

Some companies, including Molycorp, are looking for greener ways to mine rare earths. How successful they'll be remains to be seen.

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