Power and Danger
High-tech electronic devices seem so clean, sealed up inside their plastic cases, but our televisions, computers, and cell phones are laced with heavy metals and other PBTs: permanent biological toxins. The manufacture of electronic devices engenders environmental degradation, worker exploitation, and pollution. And the ever-increasing volume of high-tech trash, or e-waste, is rapidly becoming one of the most daunting threats to the health of the biosphere and ourselves. Environmental journalist Elizabeth Grossman’s avidly detailed and groundbreaking investigation into the production and trashing of high-tech electronics makes for a reading experience of the morbidly interesting kind. Her meticulously detailed and informatively technical chronicle arouses ire and indignation as well as perverse admiration for humankind's ingenuity, and a tentative hope that the creativity, ambition, and greed that have precipitated this absurd state of affairs—we are awash in an embarrassment of deadly riches—will enable us to solve the problems we’ve caused.
The facts are arresting. In 2004, Americans discarded 315 million computers; in 2005 we threw out 100 million cell phones. The United Nations estimates that “the world generates some twenty to fifty million metric tons of e-waste each year.” High-tech trash is made up of lead, mercury, cadmium, and various plastics, all poisonous and/or carcinogenic. When e-waste is incinerated, toxic chemicals are released into the atmosphere. When e-waste is dumped in landfills, these substances leach into the water supply. But, as Grossman so vividly chronicles, pollution and health hazards begin much earlier in the cycle, with the mining of heavy metals, which exacts heavy tolls on the land and human life. Take one grievous example among many, the mining of coltan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Coltan is used in capacitors in cell phones and a host of military hardware, and its extraction from the earth gives rise to dangerous working conditions, forced labor, poverty, violence, the destruction of wilderness, and the near extinction of already greatly endangered wildlife.
One of most disturbing facets of the high-tech story Grossman tells is her coverage of the discarded computers and other gadgets that are shipped to India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and China. E-waste is dumped directly onto the ground in “uncontained sliding mounds,” then men, women, and children without any protective clothing break the machines apart by hand and burn the pieces in open pans, allowing toxic chemicals to pour unchecked into the air, rivers, and seas. But one doesn’t have to go so far from home to discover the dire consequences of electronics manufacturing. Silicon Valley, the epicenter of high-tech innovation and wealth, is riddled with toxic waste sites, thanks to solvents and other chemicals used in the making of silicon wafers. In Endicott, New York, where IBM has manufactured semiconductors, workers were exposed to carcinogenic chemicals, including trichloroethylene, or TCE, which has also contaminated the soil and water, and now wafts up from the ground in the form of toxic vapors that collect in homes and businesses, causing disease and birth defects.
Grossman is particularly skillful and unnerving in her reporting on PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, the synthetic chemical compounds found in the brominated flame retardants used in everything from upholstery to televisions, computers, phones, and CD players. These synthetic compounds “are leaving the products in which they are used, making their way into the atmosphere, working their way through the food web, and showing up in our bodies.” Now found all around the globe, PBDEs persist in the environment and can potentially disrupt endocrine functions and cause developmental impairment, especially in children.
PBDEs are this century’s DDT and PCBs, and Grossman—along with other intrepid writers on the techno-environmental toxic-waste beat, including Marla Cone, Elizabeth Royte, and Giles Slade—is a disciple of Rachel Carson, whose 1962 exposé, Silent Spring, sounded the pesticide alarm. But how much more complicated technology and commerce have grown in the past forty-four years. How much greater in quantity and complexity are environmental problems and geopolitics. And how much more difficult it is for a single and singular voice to be heard. Given that Grossman both sounds the alarm and reports on emerging efforts to slow and channel the rising tide of e-waste, High Tech Trash truly should be required reading.