Why tech pollution's going global

Ted Smith, who runs the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, warns that the health dangers surrounding the growing use of PCs are getting more acute. Is it too late to turn back the clock?

9 min read
Mention the words "industry" and "pollution," and most people probably think along the lines of coal-fired power plants and pesticide-slathered mega-farms. Ted Smith thinks about the computer on your desk.

Smith is executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), a group formed 20 years ago to protest the contamination of groundwater in the heartland of California's high-tech industry. But as computers have become omnipresent in modern communities, the organization has evolved into a watchdog role, monitoring a wider landscape of occupational and environmental health issues around the world.

Earlier this year, for example, SVTC joined with several other organizations to issue a report called "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia," which decried the unregulated export of obsolete electronic devices--"e-waste"--from the United States to China, India and Pakistan. Part of the solution to that problem, Smith says, is for computer makers to design more environmentally friendly devices and to take responsibility for their products at the end of their useful life.

And last month, Smith and his group laid into the semiconductor industry for what he says is a slothful approach to the question of the health risks--including cancer and miscarriages--confronting chip-production workers. The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) says it will be taking some first steps toward evaluating the cancer risks; Smith says chipmakers have been dragging their feet for years already.

Following the celebration of Earth Day on Monday, CNET News.com caught up with Smith to talk about chips, chemicals and PC recycling.

Q: Last month, when the Semiconductor Industry Association announced it was setting up a plan "to evaluate the potential for increased cancer risks" among chip equipment workers, you called that move "a state-of-the-art stall job." What is it that the chip industry needs to do differently now?
A: Well, they need to actually move forward and do the studies, and they need to actually move forward and do the monitoring. For years, they've been saying that, yeah, they'll look into it. But they keep saying since there's no proof that there's a problem, we don't see why we should be compelled to go forward and do the study...I thought they had all this time to look at this thing.

They could have put their ducks in order. They could have resolved all the questions they say they still have. They could have had a team in place to say, let's go ahead and just do it. And rather than do that, what they're saying is that maybe they'll look at some more things and maybe at some point they'll--there's no commitment there whatsoever, and there's no time line to actually carry out anything.

What exactly is it that poses the risk to workers at chip fabs?
There's hundreds of different chemicals that are used in semiconductor manufacturing, many of which are highly toxic individually, and when you mix them together it creates a toxic cocktail that has never been even superficially studied...Some are certainly more dangerous than others, but people who are working around some of the highly toxic gases, some of the people who are working around some of the very, very potent metals, and some of the people working with some of the acids and solvents are the ones that are probably at the most risk.

A large percentage of the toxic materials used in manufacturing end up in the product itself, as opposed to production waste.
You know about the study that was done in Scotland (at a National Semiconductor plant in Greenock) recently? That is one of the first full-blown epidemiological studies that has looked at cancer as an outcome among semiconductor workers, and...they found high rates of cancer in four different sites, including breast and brain.

Is this the most dangerous aspect of the high-tech industry? Are other pieces of the manufacturing process as bad?
Semiconductor is the most dangerous. I would say then after that is circuit boards. Circuit boards contain an incredible array of very nasty chemicals also. Disk drives are in some ways also pretty toxic, because they use processes that are kind of semiconductor-like. The new flat panels use a process that is semiconductor-like. So anytime you're using these very heavy photo-active chemicals that they use in the photoresist process, whether you're making semiconductors per se or whether you're making flat panels or any other kind of product, you really need to be super-careful in how you proceed. And none of those other industries have done anything close to adequate health studies or health monitoring either.

You (also) have not only a potentially serious issue among the workers who are using lead solder, in terms of breathing it or touching it or somehow being exposed to it, which can cause a whole wide variety of health problems, but there's also an issue of what to do with the lead waste.

The problem also shows up at the other end of the cycle, once people are done using computers.
The next big set of issues comes at the end of life (because of the model of) rapid obsolescence...Part of the (Wintel) model is trying to persuade everybody to buy a new whole set of equipment, the whole system, every 18 months to two years...Moore's Law...(has) been the backbone and the marvel of the whole high-tech revolution. But the downside is that you have all this obsolete equipment piling up.

And that's what the "Exporting Harm" report got to, the other end of the manufacturing cycle, the risk of disassembling the computers and monitors.
At end of life, if you're not extremely careful again, (the bad stuff) ends up getting into the environment or harming the people who are doing the disassembling...A large percentage of the toxic materials used in manufacturing end up in the product itself, as opposed to production waste. And the main issues that present the end-of-life problems are the lead that's used in the cathode ray tubes as well as in the lead solder, and just in the cathode ray tubes there's anywhere from 4 pounds to 8 pounds just to protect you from the radiation coming from the cathode ray tube itself.

We've estimated that just in the U.S., just from computers and just in the next few years, there'll be over a billion pounds of lead coming from these obsolete computers. The question is, what's going to end up happening to that? We don't have nearly the capacity that we need to be able to address it in an environmentally appropriate way here domestically.

Where does the responsibility lie for making these high-tech products cleaner? There are a number of parties involved: the manufacturers, the recyclers, governments, corporations, consumers.
Both from a moral position, but also from a pragmatic position, it seems to be that that responsibility needs to lie with the major product producers. They're the ones who design the products in the first place, and...the solution lies at the front end of the process, at the design level. If we were able to get serious about designing for the environment in a significant way and design out the use of most of these toxics and design in ways of making it easier to upgrade, making it easier to disassemble, making it easier to actually recycle, then we'd be doing a great, great service to everybody.

Just in the next few years, there'll be over a billion pounds of lead coming from these obsolete computers.
The only people that have the power to that, who have the ability to do that, who have the knowledge to do that, and have the resources to do that, are the original equipment manufacturers themselves. They're the ones who are in charge of design, and unfortunately in my opinion, their focus on designing for faster, smaller and cheaper has outweighed the society's need to have them design for cleaner, greener and more environmentally effective.

What role then do government and individuals have to play?
I think consumers need to be more aware of the whole range of environmental and health concerns, because I think that once they're aware of that, they're going to want to do the right thing. But right now, most people still aren't even aware that their old computer contains lead or cadmium or mercury or brominated flame retardants...We've seen, dealing with bottles and cans and newspapers, that when consumers are provided the information and provided the infrastructure for doing things responsibly, then they'll do it. But we need to have massive education there.

Now at the government level, I think they can help with some of that education. I think they can help by making some of their infrastructure available to help with some of the collection, but they can't do it on their own, and they've got to get the resources to help pay for this, because they're all getting squeezed by increasing costs and the inability to raise taxes, because most people right now are not in the mood to have their taxes raised.

There's also the question of whether consumers are in the mood to pay for recycling. Some companies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Best Buy have programs where you might pay $30 or $35 to drop off your computer.
I don't think we're going to find the numbers of people that we need to pay that money at the end. They're just not going to do it. I think most people would keep it in their basement or throw it out before they would...But I do think it's an entirely different thing if you incorporate the end-of-life costs in the front-end purchase price of the product. The pattern has been, really, for the past 20 years, that the cost of the new products keeps coming down and down and down, and so if you build in the cost of recycling into the new purchase price, I think most consumers are going to be willing to pay that.

Some of the industry representatives in this NEPSI (National Electronic Products Stewardship Initiative) dialogue have argued that if you add on too much of a cost, it'll discourage consumer purchasing...But I just don't think that's going to be the case, because when you can buy a system of awesome power for under $500--whereas just a couple years ago it would have cost you $2,000--I think a few more dollars at the front end isn't going to have any impact on the consumer demand.

How are the NEPSI discussions going? What can we expect to see at the end of the dialogue in September?
We've recently made one important first step, which is to move the industry off of their position that we could solve it all at the waste end and we could do it all on a voluntary basis...But (we still need to hash out) the many, many important and difficult details on how are we going to really implement this stuff. How are we going to develop this system that will incorporate the whole life-cycle cost in the purchase price?

When consumers are provided the information and provided the infrastructure for doing things responsibly, then they'll do it.
Then there are questions about whether you're going to pay it at the retail store, and what about Dell and the Internet? Everybody seems to be very freaked out about Dell. They're gobbling up more and more market share all the time; they don't do any retail sales; they have not been a participant in NEPSI. And I think that's going to be a major focus of contention over the next stretch of time, to see if there are ways to bring them to the table in a serious manner or whether they're going to try to stay outside of this whole thing. And I think that that's one of the things that's driving the rest of the industry to realize that they need to have some actual legislation because of their fear of Dell.

There doesn't seem to be much legislation in the U.S. It's mostly on a state level, like the two bills (targeting CRTs) in California. In Europe, the WEEE (Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Directive just seems to be dragging on endlessly.
They think they're going to wrap it up this year. Well, I talked earlier about how the SIA has been so good at stalling things. I think that the industry groups have been pretty effective at stalling the WEEE Directive also...One of the main debates that's still going on there is whether a system for take-back is more effective if you have it based on individual responsibility or collective responsibility, and I think that's one of the things that we're going to be getting into here also over the next few months. The companies that are the most focused on environmental design seem to be taking the position that they prefer the individual responsibility because they think that they can design a greener computer and make it for less money and that should be rewarded.

Some of the Japanese companies have pretty aggressive time lines for completely phasing out lead in their whole production process...Panasonic (has) a corporate policy now, globally, to be completely lead-free by the end of 2002. And Sharp has a policy in place to be lead-free by the end of 2003. So these are not 10 years out. They're doing it right now.