Cutting edge contamination

Feature story - 8 February, 2007
The electronics industry is often considered a 'clean' industry. But sleek shiny gadgets hide a darker side of the industry. Our new report 'Cutting Edge Contamination' exposes that some of the electronics industries' biggest brands, and their suppliers, are contaminating rivers and underground wells with a wide range of hazardous chemicals during production.

Contaminated waste water pours into a public canal in Thailand from a industrial treatment plant.

Most mobile phones, computers and other consumer electronics are nowmanufactured in developing countries like China, Mexico, Thailand andthe Philippines. While labour practices at these production plants usedby major manufactures has come under increasing focus there has beenlittle research into environmental impacts.

Samples taken from industrial estates in China, Mexico, the Philippinesand Thailand, reveals the release of hazardous chemicals in each of thethree sectors investigated: printed wiring board manufacture,semiconductor chip manufacture and component assembly.

"Over recent years we have seen an increasing concern over the use ofhazardous chemicals in electronic products but attention has focussedon the contamination released during disposal or 'recycling ofelectronic waste'", said Dr. Kevin Brigden from the Greenpeace ResearchLaboratories. "Our findings of contamination arising during themanufacturing stage make it clear that only when we factor in thecomplete life cycle will the full environmental costs of electronicdevices begin to emerge."

Global industry

The electronics industry is truly global with individual componentsmanufactured at specialised facilities around the world often involvinghighly resource and chemical intensive processes, generating hazardouswastes, the fate and effects of which are still very poorly documented.

"There is shockingly little information on precisely which major brandcompanies are supplied by which manufacturing facilities.Responsibility for the contamination lies as much with those brands aswith the facilities themselves," said Zeina Alhajj, Toxics Campaigner,Greenpeace International, "There has to be full transparency regardingthe supply chain within the electronics industry, so that brand ownersare forced to take responsibility for the environmental impacts ofproducing their goods."

The study also documents the contamination of groundwater wells at anumber of sites, particularly around semiconductor manufacturers, withtoxic chlorinated chemicals (VOC's) and toxic metals. Contamination ofgroundwater is serious, since local communities in many places usegroundwater for drinking water.

At one site in the Philippines, three samples contained chlorinatedVOCs above World Health Organisation (WHO) limits for drinking water.One sample contained tetrachloroethene at 9 times above the WHOguidance values for exposure limits and 70 times the US EnvironmentalProtection Agency maximum contaminant level for drinking water.Elevated levels of metals, particularly copper, nickel and zinc, werealso found in groundwater samples in some sites.

The use of such toxic chemicals in manufacturing processes also poses potential risks to workers through workplace exposure.

Paying the price

Wastewater discharged from an IBM site in Guadalajara, Mexico containedhazardous compounds, including some that were not found at other sites.IBM's 'Supplier Conduct Principles Guidelines' state that suppliersshould operate in a manner that is protective of the environment.

All major manufactures should take a good read of this report and seewhat they can do to clean up the production process of their suppliers.

Workers and people living near production plants are paying the priceof lax control and polluting practices of the global electronicsindustry. Hiding behind anonymity of its supplier chain just doesn'twash when other areas of the supply chain are tightly controlled.

Electronics manufacturing remains at the cutting edge of technologicaldevelopment and has a strong economic future. There is no reason why itshould not also be at the cutting edge when it comes to cleantechnologies, substitution of hazardous chemicals, greater workerhealth protection and the prevention of pollution.

Take action

Check out which of the major brands are doing the most to clean up their act in our Green Guide to Electronics ranking.

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