In the US, according to the Safety Council, 60 million PCs are already buried in landfills and 138,000 computers a day will become obsolete - and so ready for dumping - between 2004 and 2009.
Just in the UK, up to 2 million Pentium PCs are dumped each year.
Also, any disaster is likely to release vast quantities of poisonous material. (One estimate of 9/11 was that the personal computers destroyed contained 200,000 pounds of lead!)
How much escaped into the outside world? Judging from onsite readings in the following weeks- a LOT.
A computer is environmentally expensive to make. It will use 10 times its weight in fossil fuels plus a tonne of purified water. Polluting substances (at low levels) are also discharged into rivers' lakes and the air during every stage of manufacture.
However savage competition, increasing repair costs, and regular model upgrading has meant manufacturers have made little effort to recycle, as PC prices - and hence profit margins - have stayed low.
So what poisons are there in your average model? The main ones are:
Consumer electronics make up 40% of lead continually dumped (until recently) into landfills and scrap yards. An average computer uses 4 pounds of Lead, i.e., 6.2% of the total weight of the PC.
The main uses of Lead in Consumer Electronics are for soldering of printed circuit boards (PCBs) and other electronic components, as well as glass panels in computer monitors (cathode ray tubes), to shield you from radiation. Typically a screen can contain 2 to 5 grams of lead!
Lead is one of the few natural substances not essential to life. At even very low levels, lead has been shown to cause health problems.
Lead can damage the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood system and kidneys in humans. It accumulates in the environment and has serious damaging effects on plants, animals and microorganisms. The difficulty with lead is that once it is mined from the earth, there is no commercially acceptable way to destroy or make it harmless - you can only try recycling it The recyclable efficiency of Lead is around a low 5%.
Cadmium occurs in certain electronic components such as resistors, infrared detectors, semiconductors, older cathode ray tubes, in batteries and as a plastic stabilizer. Cadmium is an extremely toxic metal, and may damage human health irreversibly.
Cadmium and cadmium compounds concentrate in the human body, in particular in the kidneys.
Cadmium is absorbed mainly through breathing - very dangerous, (high levels can kill!) but also enters via food, and can easily accumulate in amounts that cause symptoms of poisoning.
Again like lead, cadmium has accumulated via the dumping of old computers, and has become a hazard to us all.
Barium is used in the front panel of a CRT to protect users from radiation. Barium can be released through the air, water, and soil, and also accumulates in fish. Studies have shown that short-term exposure to barium (through ingestion) has resulted in brain swelling, muscle weakness, and damage to the heart, liver, and spleen.
22 % of the yearly world consumption of mercury is used in electrical and electronic equipment. In PCs you'll find mercury in PWBs, batteries and the newer liquid crystal LCD flat screens that are replacing the older bulkier monitors, with their cathode ray tubes, ( whose screens contained lead!)
Mercury is a powerful poison. Published research has shown that mercury, even in small amounts, is more toxic than lead, cadmium and even arsenic! Although mercury is just 0.0022% of the total weight of the computer, it is a big health hazard.
And we haven't even touched on other hazardous and polluting substances like Tin, Arsenic, Beryllium, hexavalent Chromium, Selenium,arsenic,manganese, Silver. Plus stabilisers and additives.
Polybrominated flame retardants used on cables and circuit boards may damage sexual development and growth, and accumulate in human breast milk
If computer materials are 'destroyed' by commercial incineration, hazardous metals and cancer causing organics like dioxins can be discharged into the air.
Stricter laws are being gradually introduced worldwide controlling the dumping and recycling of computers, although the present 'dumping' of computer waste by the West on developing countries has now become a major scandal. We healthy people are making people overseas ill dismantling our PCs.
The main aim behind PC disposal laws worldwide has been 'make the polluter pay', So manufacturers will be expected to pay the direct costs.
(But don't be too amazed if you find your new PC suddenly costs $60 more!)
The European Union has led the way with a series of Directives putting strict limits on the hazardous content of a PC sold in member countries, and how all PCs are disposed of - sellers will have to take them back and arrange recycling.
The US has so far adopted a more piecemeal approach, although states as far apart as California and Alaska are enforcing strict controls on dumping and disposal of electronic equipment.
What can YOU do?
- Check your local regulations if you want to dispose of your computing equipment.
- Give your computer away to a registered charity or organisation that can use it. (Make sure it's in good working order before you try this!)
- Use a registered specialist disposal firm to remove and recycle old computers, don’t break the law and pollute the environment!
- In future, before you buy a new PC, consider buying a recycled computer, or upgrade your old one.
Plus, have a look at these sites.......
Environmental Protection Agency (US) http://www.epa.gov/
In UK, Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER) http://www.icer.org.uk/
Good luck, and healthy living and computing in 2006 and beyond!
Mick Madigan lives in the UK and has a continual interest in healthy computing He has published a fully detailed guide on how computing will harm you -and how you can avoid it- at http://www.m1mart.co.uk