High-Tech industry contaminating rivers and underground water in Asia and Mexico

Press release - February 8, 2007
Greenpeace today released ‘Cutting Edge Contamination: A study of environmental pollution during the manufacture of electronic products’ (1). The report shows that some of the electronics industries’ biggest brands, and their suppliers, are contaminating rivers and underground wells with a wide range of hazardous chemicals.

Toxic waste water from a industrial estate in Thailand where electronics are manufactured.

Analysis of samples taken from industrial estates in China, Mexico, thePhilippines and Thailand, reveals the release of hazardous chemicals ineach of the three sectors investigated: printed wiring board (PWB)manufacture, semiconductor chip manufacture and component assembly (2).

Mostnoteworthy was the discovery at the majority of sites investigated ofpolybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a group of brominated chemicalsused as flame retardants, and of phthalates, chemicals used in a widerange processes and materials, though they are most commonly used asplasticisers (softeners) in some plastics (3).

"Over recentyears we have seen an increasing concern over the use of hazardouschemicals in electronic products but attention has focussed on thecontamination released during disposal or 'recycling of electronicwaste'", 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."

The electronics industry is trulyglobal with individual components manufactured at specialisedfacilities around the world often involving highly resource andchemical intensive processes, generating hazardous wastes, the fate andeffects of which are still very poorly documented.

"There isshockingly little information on precisely which major brand companiesare supplied by which manufacturing facilities. Responsibility for thecontamination lies as much with those brands as with the facilitiesthemselves," said Zeina Alhajj, Toxics Campaigner, GreenpeaceInternational, "There has to be full transparency regarding the supplychain within the electronics industry, so that brand owners are forcedto take responsibility for the environmental impacts of producing theirgoods."

The study also documents the contamination ofgroundwater aquifers at a number of sites, particularly aroundsemiconductor manufacturers, with toxic chlorinated volatile organicchemicals (VOCs) and toxic metals including nickel. Contamination ofgroundwater is of particular concern, since local communities in manyplaces use groundwater for drinking water. At one site, the CaviteExport Processing Zone (CEPZA) in the Philippines, three samplescontained chlorinated VOCs above World Health Organisation (WHO) limitsfor drinking water. One sample contained tetrachloroethene at 9 timesabove the WHO guidance values for exposure limits and 70 times the USEnvironmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level for drinkingwater. Elevated levels of metals, particularly copper, nickel and zinc,were also found in groundwater samples in some sites (4).

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

Wastewaterdischarged from an IBM site in Guadalajara, Mexico contained hazardouscompounds, including some (such as the potent hormone disruptornonylphenol) which were not found at other sites. IBM's 'SupplierConduct Principles Guidelines' state that suppliers should operate in amanner that is protective of the environment. "IBM should act upon ourfindings and investigate activities at the site in order to prevent anyreleases of persistent organic compounds from the Guadalajara site,"Al-Hajj stressed.

"The tragic and undocumented persistentcontamination of people and the environment by the global electronicsindustry, which hides behind the anonymity of its supplier chain, mustend. These facilities and the brands which pay for them must be fullyinvestigated and the pollution must stop. Electronics manufacturingremains at the cutting edge of technological development and has astrong economic future. There is no reason why it should not also be atthe cutting edge when it comes to clean designs and technologies,substitution of hazardous chemicals, greater worker health protectionand the prevention of environmental pollution at source," concludedZeina Alhajj.

Other contacts: Dr. Kevin Brigden, Greenpeace Research Laboratories in Exeter, +44 7968 844906 Zeina al-Hajj, Greenpeace International, Campaign coordinator +31653128904 Natalia Tuchi, Greenpeace International, Media officer +31 646162029

Notes: 1. Online version available at: http://www.greenpeace.org/electronicsproductionreport 2. The report analyses samples taken from: IBM, HP, Intel, Sony and Sanyo, Fortune, Compeq, Elec&Eltek, CKL Electronics, KCE, PCTT, On Semicon (also known as on Semiconductor), Kemet, Flextronics, Jabil, Solectron, and Sanmina; and industrial estates where some of these are situated: Navanakorn, Bangpa-in, Hi-Tech, Rojana, Gateway Business Park, Cavite Export Processing Zone (CEPZA) 3. PBDEs and many phthalates are known to be toxic, and some are also persistent in the environment. Certain PBDEs are highly bioaccumulative (able to build up to high concentrations in animals and humans). 4. Copper and Nickel are widely used in the PWB manufacture of electronics. Effects from copper to aquatic life can occur at very low levels including reduction in growth and fertility rate. Ingestion of some nickel compounds can cause toxic effects in humans and animals.