Cutting edge contamination

Feature story - February 8, 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.

Most mobile phones, computers and other consumer electronics are now manufactured in developing countries like China, Mexico, Thailand and the Philippines. While labor practices at these production plants used by major manufactures has come under increasing focus, there has been little research into environmental impacts.

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

"Over recent years we have seen an increasing concern over the use of hazardous chemicals in electronic products but attention has focused on the contamination released during disposal or 'recycling of electronic waste'", said Dr. Kevin Brigden from the Greenpeace Research Laboratories. "Our findings of contamination arising during the manufacturing stage make it clear that only when we factor in the complete life cycle will the full environmental costs of electronic devices begin to emerge."

Global industry

The electronics industry is truly global - with individual components manufactured at specialized facilities around the world often involving highly resourced and chemical intensive processes, generating hazardous wastes - the fate and effects of which are still very poorly documented.

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

The report also documents the contamination of groundwater wells at a number of sites, particularly around semiconductor manufacturers, with toxic chlorinated chemicals (VOC's) and toxic metals. Contamination of groundwater is serious with amny local communities using groundwater for drinking water.

At one site in the Philippines, three samples contained chlorinated VOC's above World Health Organisation (WHO) limits for drinking water. One sample contained tetrachloroethene at 9 times above the WHO guidance values for exposure limits and 70 times the US Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level for drinking water. Elevated levels of metals, particularly copper, nickel and zinc, were also found in groundwater samples in some sites.

The use of these 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 contained hazardous compounds, including some that were not found at other sites. IBM's 'Supplier Conduct Principles Guidelines' state that suppliers should operate in a manner that is protective of the environment.

All major manufactures should be focusing on what they can do to clean up the production process of their suppliers. It is the workers and people living near the production plants that are paying the price of lax control and the polluting practices of the global electronics industry.

Electronics manufacturing remains at the cutting edge of technological development and has a strong economic future. There is no reason why it should not also be at the cutting edge when it comes to clean technologies, substitution of hazardous chemicals, greater worker health 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.