Is electronic waste recycling endangering your facility staff’s health? If your crew is responsible for disposing of e-waste, they could be exposed to hazardous metals, flame retardants and other potentially dangerous substances, according to recent studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an agency affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
NIOSH examined two e-recycling centers to assess employee exposure to hazardous chemicals. The results, obtained through surface testing, hand wipes, blood and urine tests, and air samples, were illuminating.
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E-recycling center employees are likely exposed to larger concentrations of these substances than most people due to the nature of their work. But if your facilities team spends a significant amount of time sorting e-scrap or shredding it for disposal, you may have a potential health hazard on your hands.
What is E-Waste?
E-waste is a nickname for electronic waste; in other words, electronics at the end of their life. Some can be refurbished and donated or sold again, but others must be recycled. When e-waste goes to a landfill, toxic components like lead, mercury and cadmium can leach into the soil or groundwater.
Devices that become e-waste include:
- Computers and related accessories: towers, monitors, laptops, computer peripherals
- Mobile devices: phones, tablets, MP3 players, cameras
- Entertainment devices: TVs, VCRs, audiovisual equipment, stereo equipment
- Office equipment: copiers, fax machines, projectors, printers, security devices
- Data center equipment: servers, network-related devices, routers, switches, cables, racks
- IoT devices: sensors, wearable technology, GPS units, smart thermostats
- Electronic and industrial scrap
Why is E-Waste Hazardous?
In addition to leaching into soil and groundwater, e-waste poses direct health risks to people who handle it regularly. These common substances are especially risky, according to the World Health Organization and the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program:
- Lead: Found in circuit boards, batteries and other mobile phone components. Damages the reproductive, blood and nervous systems. If children are exposed - for example, by workers bringing home residue on their bodies or clothing - it can lead to neurological, kidney and blood disorders.
- Copper: Common component of wiring and other electronic components. High doses and long-term exposure can overwhelm the body’s ability to excrete extra copper and may contribute to nervous system, liver or kidney failure. Inhaling copper dust or fumes may irritate the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.
- Mercury: Used in cell phone batteries, displays and circuit boards. Methylmercury, the form that can be easily absorbed by living organisms, harms the brain and can result in developmental delays, motor impairment, cardiovascular damage and even death with a large enough exposure.
- Arsenic: Found in many types of microchips. Chronic low levels of exposure has been linked to an increased risk of lung and heart disease, diabetes, reproductive disorders and cancers of the skin, bladder and lung.
- Cadmium: Common in batteries, especially nickel–cadmium. Linked to kidney damage, which can then lead to high blood pressure, kidney disease and heart disease. Large chronic exposure interferes with the body’s metabolism of calcium, leading to lower bone density, brittleness and pain. Animal studies suggest that it may also contribute to behavioral issues and learning disabilities.
- Chlorine: Component of some plastics, including the ones used in cell phones. If it’s not disposed of properly, chlorine can cause tissue damage.
- Brominated flame retardants: Bromine used in brominated flame retardants can disrupt the balance of thyroid hormones and contribute to brain damage and cancer.
How Does E-Waste Harm Handlers?
The testing found that potentially harmful substances migrated from the e-waste sorting and shredding areas in a variety of forms. Metals in particular migrated all over one tested facility, especially onto surfaces.
At the first facility, a plant in Ohio with a shredding and separation system, the levels of lead and manganese were about five times higher on the conference room air diffuser and the handle of the employee water cooler than they were on any other surfaces. Nickel was the most concentrated on the water cooler handle and a bathroom door handle.
NIOSH also discovered potentially alarming results on the workers’ hands and in their bodies. Testing employees’ hands after they washed them but before they went home for the day revealed lead, manganese, nickel and cadmium residue, with lead showing the highest concentration.
Blood tests revealed elevated lead levels in three employees who worked in the shredding and sorting areas, including one person whose blood lead level was more than double OSHA’s acceptable limit. Urine testing showed that flame retardant concentrations doubled over the course of a normal work shift, and flame retardants also showed up on blood tests.
The second e-waste facility inspected, a 12-person organization in Washington state that doesn’t have a shredding and separation system, yielded mixed results. Levels of harmful substances were well below occupational limits, but the locations in which these materials were found suggests that improvements are still necessary.
Lead, cobalt and chromium were highest on the door of a breakroom refrigerator, and cadmium was highest on the door handle for the women’s restroom. The men’s restroom door handle had the highest copper level. Even though the total level was low, the presence of these substances so far from the processing areas could indicate that employees are accidentally ingesting them when they eat.
Hand testing found detectable levels of cobalt on six out of eight people’s hands, copper on seven people’s hands and beryllium on one person. Taken with the surface testing, this seems to bolster the theory that employees may be accidentally transferring dangerous metals onto their food as they eat, as well as into their cars and homes.
How to Protect People from E-Waste Hazards
NIOSH issued several recommendations to both of the inspected facilities. If your facilities staff regularly handles or disposes of e-waste, you might want to implement some of their suggestions in your own facility.
- Provide lead-removing hand cleaner. Soap and water is ineffective at removing toxic metals like lead, so if your crew regularly handles materials that may contain lead, make sure they have access to cleaning solutions that will work.
- Use respirators in any areas where e-waste is disassembled or shredded. Personal protective equipment around e-waste is generally a good practice, NIOSH says.
- Utilize local exhaust ventilation if you’re processing metal on-site to physically remove the contaminants from the work area.
- Prohibit employees from eating, drinking or smoking around hazardous materials.
- Ban compressed air and dry sweeping if your facilities team handles e-waste. Both methods can kick up dust that workers will inhale, and if that dust has hazardous materials in it, the workers will breathe that in along with the dust. Wet-cleaning methods, vacuums and other contained disposal methods won’t contaminate the air.
- Require regular training and medical testing to make sure that your protective policies are working and that no one has a higher than permitted level of exposure.
- Provide a laundering service for anyone exposed to dangerous materials so they’re not carrying potential hazards home on their clothes.
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