Most Americans love to embrace the new and dispense with the old. That helps explain why the nation generated more than a million tons of computer and other electronic waste last year.
The problem is, those computers and other devices contain toxic materials like lead. When they are crushed and put into landfills, the lead can seep into groundwater. The tainted water can then cause brain damage in children who drink it when it flows out of their taps at home.
The lead comes from the melted solder inside the computer. "If you've ever looked at a circuit board -- that is, the 'mother board" where all the pieces are put together that serve as the main part of the computer - almost all of the connections on there are soldered," notes Scott Mathews a professor at the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
"While it's not ten kilograms of lead per unit," he says, "when you start thinking about the amount of computers and other products that might be in landfills, then it really adds up."
Some manufactures have addressed the problem by making smaller computers. Less machine means less lead, they say. But that approach creates its own problems. "Just by making them smaller and lighter, it doesn't mean that the substances and the materials that are used in the manufacturing process are gone, " says Mr. Mathews. "In fact, we have the same relative toxic materials in computers. We've just miniaturized…but they are now much more densely packed."
Japanese scientists are trying to develop a new toxin-free solder that will not damage the groundwater. The problem is international. The private U.S. National Safety Council projects that nearly 250 million computers worldwide will become obsolete over the next five years. Meanwhile, the Council estimates, mobile phones are being discarded at the rate of about 130 million per year.
One low-tech method for dealing with old computers is not to waste them at all, but to fix them. For example, Compumentor - an organization that helps nonprofit groups and schools improve their technology and reach low-income and other under-served communities - is a strong backer of computer recycling and re-use.
"It's sort of our mission to direct all donations into 400 or so authorized refurbishers around the country," says Jim Lynch, who directs the recycling program at Compumentor. "They'll take the computers and get the ones that are reusable and get them in shape."
While lead from computer waste is a key concern, materials from other electronic equipment also pose a threat. Mercury, a dangerous toxin, is found in thermostats, printed circuit boards, medical equipment and mobile phones. Most rechargeable batteries contain cadmium - a danger, says Professor Mathews, because "we think that it can lead to organ malfunction like lungs and kidneys, perhaps even prostate cancer." There have also been reports from Japan of bone calcification as a result of cadmium getting into rivers.
In addition, over the past 10 years most electronic gear has been treated with so-called "brominated" flame-retardants to prevent sudden fires from overheated power supplies in crowded environments like offices. "However, studies are finding that these certain kinds of brominated flame-retardants are bio-accumulative and cause endocrine disruption problems," warns Carnegie Mellon professor Scott Mathews. He says the retardants can also form dioxins if they are burned. "If you want a quick update on what dioxins will do to you, ask the new President of Ukraine," he says -- referring to Viktor Yushchenko, whose face was deeply scarred due to dioxin poisoning.
While the European Union has mandated that manufactures of computers and electronic gear phase out the use of some of these toxic materials over the next five years, few American regulators -- and fewer U.S. electronics manufacturers -- have focused on the problem. However, as public awareness of the hazards of electronic waste continues to grow, research will accelerate in the effort to find viable solutions.