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Flame retardants pose health risks to recyclers

Monday, April 13, 2009

Electronic recycling facility workers face 6-33 times higher exposure to toxic flame retardants PBDEs than the general American population, reported scientists from the University of Texas in an article now in press in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Where does flame retardant dust come from?
PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, if you must know) are included in plastic computer parts during manufacturing. Over the lifetime of a product, PBDEs are slowly released - with tiny dust particles that chip off the surface of computer equipment. At home and in the office we may be continuously inhaling small quantities of PBDEs which tend to linger in the body and accumulate to higher levels after long term exposure. But the real toxic hit happens during the recycling process. When computer equipment is completely disassembled to extract valuable metal components, a large portion of the PBDEs end up in the air that workers breathe.

Flame retardants pose an occupational hazard
Comparing PBDE air values reported from a California electronic recycling facility and estimates of US food, air and dust intake, University of Texas research team concluded that PBDE exposure in US electronic recycling facilities is a largely unrecognized occupational health hazard. Furthermore, recycling workers might carry PBDEs and other toxic chemicals home to their families on their clothing. Elevated environmental and blood PBDE levels were also detected in similar occupational studies in China, Sweden, and Norway.

Considering that PBDEs build up in the body, where they disrupt adults' thyroid system and possibly decrease testosterone levels in exposed men, it makes sense that the scientists strongly advised to lower levels of PBDEs in the workplace where exposure exists. The article concluded with a statement that "health care providers, plant safety professionals, and government agencies can play a role in recognizing the problem and in decreasing worker exposure."

Consumer power matters
As buyers and users of computer equipment, we can help shape the debate and vote with our purchasing choices so as to decrease levels of toxic chemicals in consumer products. Constantly developing technology offers to us amazing new levels of convenience, facilitating our work and home life and making it easy to live a disposable lifestyle. Many of us feel that we are doing our bit for the environment by driving the extra mile to drop off an old laptop or cell phone at a recycling center. Yet, is this enough?

The high costs of recycling
As the new study demonstrates - in agreement with findings from plastic and computer recycling sites worldwide - there is a strong reason to care about the fate of recycled products, since they affect the health of our fellow citizens who work in recycling facilities. The cost ratios are also striking. For example, let's take the case of plastic bags, a simpler situation than computer recycling. According to statistics from the San Francisco's Department of the Environment, it costs $4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for less than 50 dollars. So recycling is as important as it ever was - but it cannot be considered as a sufficient solution.

Let's remember the first 2 R's
We all remember the three R's - reduce, reuse, and recycle. The recycling part of the solution has received the well-deserved attention and support. Many types of plastics can be recycled - but many are not recyclable. And recycling itself is costly and can carry negative environmental consequences as well. Clearly, we need to work towards safer recycling techniques. More importantly, though, we need to make sure that the first two R's are not forgotten - reducing, reusing, and making safer, durable consumer products point the path out of the current wasteful predicament that endangers human health.

Why should you care?
The truth is that once toxic chemicals are produced, they will stay with us for a very long time, eventually polluting the environment and the bodies of people everywhere. And when it comes to PBDEs, computer equipment is just one source of exposure - we can inhale and ingest flame retardants that are added to furniture, mattresses, and sometimes even clothes our children wear. Even more worrisome is the fact that PBDE contamination of the environment is on the rise. As reported by Tony Perry from LA Times on April 1st:

Flame-retardant chemicals that have been linked to reproductive and neurological problems in animals have seeped into coastal environments even in remote regions and have been found in high concentrations off populated areas such as Chicago and Southern California, a federal study revealed Tuesday.

"This is a wake-up call for Americans concerned about the health of our coastal waters and their personal health," said John H. Dunnigan, assistant administrator of the National Ocean Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which released the report.

High levels of the chemicals were found in sediment and shellfish samples in areas including the Pacific Northwest's Puget Sound; the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., coast; New York's Hudson-Raritan Estuary; Lake Michigan off Milwaukee, Chicago and Gary, Ind.; and off remote shores in Alaska. The highest concentrations were near industrial centers."


Change in toxic chemicals policy needed
We need to fundamentally change our policy approach to toxic chemicals in the environment and consumer goods, so that manufacturers are required to prove their products are safe before they are put on the market. Otherwise, harmful chemical exposures will just keep on adding up, putting people and the environment at greater risk.

Photo by georgehotelling

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