The Computer Health Effect

Photo taken by Mario Yang

I have used my MacBook Air every day since I began college. My computer allows me to surf the internet, read, pay bills, watch movies, listen to music, stay in touch with friends and family, and so much more. In addition to the entertainment aspect, I also use my computer to do a lot of school work, including viewing assignments, researching ideas, and writing articles. My computer is used for many purposes, on a daily basis. I can only imagine that it has become an everyday product for many other students, teachers and professionals. Computers are used in almost every profession and/or job, from servers to doctors to policemen. The computer is multi-purposeful and that is why it is used in so many different careers, jobs and education. There is no doubt that the computer has expanded what we can do in our society. Because the computer has become a widely used electronic product, the demand for such product has increased dramatically. This leaves behind old electric products as waste. The accumulation of what we now consider “junk” is causing negative global heath effects.

In 1613 the word “computer” was first used but it was very different than the computer we imagine today. A computer was defined as a person who performed calculations and computations. This definition remained the same until the late 19th century when people realized that machines could perform much faster and more accurate calculations. The current dictionary now describes the computer as “a programmable electronic device designed to accept data, perform prescribed mathematical and logical operations at high speed, and display the results of these operations.”

Charles Babbage began developing the first mechanical/automatic computer engine in 1822. Henry Babbage was able to complete a portion of the machine that was able to perform basic calculations in 1910. Tommy Flowers developed the electric programmable computer to help the British read encrypted German Messages in 1943. J. Presper Ecket and John Mauchly founded the first computer company Eckert Mauchly Computer Corporation. They released a series of computers in 1949. In the 1950s, the United States Government received their first computer that was able to store and run a program from memory. In 1976, Steve Wozniak developed the first Apple computer. In 1981 Adam Osborne developed the first laptop/portable computer that weighed 24.5 pounds and had a 5-inch screen, two floppy drives, 64 KB of memory and a modem. IBM made the IBM PC, the first personal computer in 1981. Dell introduced the “Turbo PC,” in 1985 (Computer Hope, 1).

Computers are composed of a variety of metals, plastics, alloys and other materials. The material make up of a computer has both precious metals and extremely dangerous substances. Copper, lead and gold are some of the most common metals used in a variety of computer parts. Plastic is used in a variety of computer parts. Lead, mercury, Bromine and other hazardous materials are used in many computer hardware pieces. Modern systems now contain less of these dangerous materials (eHow, 1).

The Basel Action Network (BAN), the only organization dedicated to halting toxic trade in the world, announced in their Annual Report that the average lifespan of a computer, since 2005, has reduced from five years to two years. It was also estimated that 133,000 computers become obsolete every day, in the United States.

So what happens to your old computer when it becomes obsolete? Where does its valuable metals and poisonous materials go?

Your old computer is now referred to as electronic waste, also known as e-waste. The majority of your electronic waste products that contain valuable and hazardous materials are shipped to developing countries that do not have adequate infrastructure to safely recycle. Therefore, individuals in developing countries must take apart your old computer to retrieve its valuable materials while exposing themselves and our bare environment to toxicity, due to its hazardous components.

Photo by Basel Action Network

Have you ever thought about how your old computer and electronic goods could affect your health? It is affecting you and our environment, at this very moment. Within the United States, the majority of its computers, e-waste, are not reused or recycled; they are disposed of in landfills, resulting in high levels of human exposure and environmental contamination. Of the e-waste gets recycled, a large percentage of it is shipped to countries that do not have the education or facilities to safely recycle electronic products. Louisa Olds, author of Curb Your E-Waste: Why The United States Should Control Its Electronic Waste Exports.” Published in, Cardozo Journal Of International & Comparative Law, analyzes methods of e-waste recycling. She states,

“The typical recycling methods used in e-waste processing countries are acid baths and open-air burning of electronic parts in order to recover valuable metals such as gold, platinum, and copper. Not only do these processes pollute the local environment, but also the toxic fumes released from the open-air burning are inhaled both by the individuals doing the recycling and by surrounding local populations, resulting in severe adverse health effects” (Olds, 835).

Guiyu, China is one of the main e-waste recycling destinations in the world. China is a large producer of e-waste but it is estimated that over 90% of its total e-waste, is foreign. The Guiyu’s, Lianjian River is extremely polluted with copper, nickel, cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic. Due to the electronic toxins, 80% of children in Guiyu have high levels of lead in their blood. Olds further states,

“Other studies have found ‘high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) from flame retardants, lead, cadmium and chromium in blood samples of infant children of e-waste workers’ which have been linked to ‘stillbirths, low birth weights and premature deliveries and impacts on the children’s growth rates and neurobehavioral development’” (Olds, 835).

PBDE is associated with cancer, thyroid effects, learning/memory problems, a decrease in sperm quality and a reduction in male hormones. These environmental and health effects are very similar to other e-waste recycling centers across the globe, such as in Agbogbloshie, Ghana and Seelampur, India (Olds, 835). Not only are these effects arising in countries that are disposing electronic products, they are also causing global impacts. A large percentage of our food supply comes from China, the same region in which our electronic waste is being disposed of, causing our food to be exposed to the same toxins used within and to take apart computers and electronic products. Scientists have also traced air pollutant from China, across the globe. Pollutant such as mercury is moving into the upper atmosphere, across the oceans to fall out in other continents (E-Stewards).

Guiyu, China. Photo taken by Basel Action Network

The Basel Convention is an international treaty designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations, specifically from developed to third world countries. In 1992 the Basel Convention took effect with 172 signatory countries. Afghanistan, Haiti and the United States have yet to ratify the convention, out of the 172 parties. (Roby, 248).

The United States is behind in regulating the export/domestic recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), in comparison to other developed nations. There is not much federal guidance on hazardous waste exportation or attention paid to WEEE recycling companies. The Basel Action Network mentions within their Annual Report that developing countries are becoming global dumping grounds for much of the world’s toxic waste.

“Workers in developing countries with a choice between poverty and poison — a choice nobody should have to make” (BAN).

The growing rate of electronic waste is a global concern. Advancements in technology and the increasing rate consumption have resulted in an increase of electronic products. Consumers are replacing their older electronic products, computers, with newer versions, which have led to a dramatic rise in electronic waste. This is dramatically impacting our environment and causing many health hazards. Computers, electronic waste, must be recycled properly and e-waste must be minimized. Minimizing e-waste is only achievable if our society reduces the amount we consume. Strict federal laws and regulations are necessary to reduce the export of e-waste. While computers have become an influential part of our growing society, we still need adequate recycling infrastructures within our nation to reduce the extensive negative consequences we have already caused globally.

Photo taken by Basel Action Network

Work Cited

“BAN’s 2012 Annual Report.” Basel Action Network, 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 17 May 2015. <http://www.ban.org/files/BAN_2012_Annual_Report.pdf>.

Roby, Claire. “E-Waste Management.” Green Business: An A-to-Z Guide. Ed. Nevin Cohen and Paul Robbins. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2011. 246-250.The SAGE Reference Series on Green Society: Toward a Sustainable Future. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 17 May 2015.

Olds, Louisa. “Curb Your E-Waste: Why The United States Should Control Its Electronic Waste Exports.” Cardozo Journal Of International & Comparative Law 20.3 (2012): 827–873. Web. 17 May 2015.

“What Materials Are Used to Make Computers?” eHow. Web. 17 May 2015. <http://www.ehow.com/list_6162960_materials-used-make-computers_.html>.

“When was the first computer invented?” Computer Hope, 2015. Web. 17 May 2015.<http://www.computerhope.com/issues/ch000984.htm>.

“Who Gets Stepped On?” E-Stewards. E-Stewards, 2015. Web. 27 May 2015.

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