What's in electronic devices?

Page - April 4, 2006
Electronic devices are a complex mixture of several hundred materials, many of which contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and beryllium and hazardous chemicals, such as brominated flame retardants. Polluting PVC plastic is also frequently used. A mobile phone, for example, contains 500 to 1000 components.

A migrant child from Henan province holds up a piece of e-waste. It was once a Nokia computer screen, now dumped in China and dismantled by poor, unprotected, migrant workers.

These dangerous substances cause serious pollution and put workers at risk of exposure when the products are produced or disposed of. Of particular concern is the exposure of children and pregnant women to lead and mercury. These metals are highly toxic and can harm children and developing foetuses even at low levels of exposure..

Health Hazard

Some brominated flame retardants, used in circuit boards and plastic casings, do not break down easily and build up in the environment. Long-term exposure can lead to impaired learning and memory functions. They can also interfere with thyroid and oestrogen hormone systems and exposure in the womb has been linked to behavioural problems.

As much as 1,000 tonnes of a brominated flame retardant called TBBPA was used to manufacture 674 million mobile phones in 2004. This chemical has been linked to neurotoxicity.(Greenpeace calculation based on an average mobile phone of 75 g weight that contains 2% TBBPA)

The cathode ray tubes (CTR) in monitors sold worldwide in 2002 contain approximately 10,000 tonnes of lead. Exposure to lead can cause intellectual impairment in children and can damage the nervous, blood and reproductive systems in adults.(Greenpeace calculation based on an average weight of 15kg and an average of 4% lead in a CRT monitor and 17.8 million units sold worldwide in 2002)

Cadmium, used in rechargeable computer batteries, contacts and switches and in older CRTs, can bioaccumulate in the environment and is highly toxic, primarily affecting the kidneys and bones.

Mercury, used in lighting devices for flat screen displays can damage the brain and central nervous system, particularly during early development.

Compounds of hexavalent chromium, used in the production of metal housings, are highly toxic and human carcinogens.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a chlorinated plastic used in some electronics products and for insulation on wires and cables (OECD 2003). Chlorinated dioxins and furans are released when PVC is produced or disposed of by incineration (or simply burning). These chemicals are highly persistent in the environment and many are toxic even in very low concentrations.