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Glorious Jabberwocky

by Archives November 1, 2006

Computers are great. They streamline our lives, put information and knowledge at our fingertips, facilitate communication and can deliver hours of diversion and entertainment. They also make it possible to live in a virtually paperless world. For many environmentalists, this is enough to put computers on the list of ecologically beneficial technological advancements.

Unfortunately, the neat and tidy techno-aesthetic of the computer hides the toxic innards of these powerful machines. Poisons like hexavalent chromium, phthalates, lead, beryllium, cadmium and mercury.

One of the worst pollutants are brominated flame retardants (BFRs). BFRs are applied to printed circuit boards and capacitors in the manufacture stage of electronics. BFRs were introduced in the late 1970s to replace polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as the most common chemical-based flame retardant. BFRs are present in most furniture, bedding, clothing and electronics.

The environmental consequences of BFRs are not well-known, but BFRs are listed as “persistent organic pollutants” and therefore present a long-term risk to human health and the earth’s ecosystem. In studies done in Sweden, BFRs were found to accumulate in breast milk and tissue. Accumulations of BFRs have also been found in various types of flora and fauna and in common foods like beef and fish, and in house dust. BFRs have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system, which means they pose a risk of birth defects for developing fetuses. This also means that BFRs are potentially carcinogenic for babies, children and adults.

All of these chemicals are released not only in the manufacturing stage, but also in the daily use, and most dangerously in the disposal phase of computing devices.

For the people who work in the salvage yards and dumps of countries with relaxed chemical disposal policies like China and India – people who will likely never be able to afford the poison-laden gadgets they dismantle – computers are lethal instruments.

For environmental organizations like Greenpeace, that means that computers are a blessing as well as a curse. In their words, “Greenpeace wants to see electronics companies clean up their act.”

To facilitate this, they tabulated chemical impact data on the major electronics manufacturers and came up with a scorecard. They assessed the recycling record and the presence of common poisons and assigned a numbered rating accordingly.

According to a Greenpeace study and scorecard, HP, Dell, Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, LG electronics, Fujitsu-Siemens and Samsung all ranked better than Apple. The supposed leader in design, functionality and innovation, is unfortunately a dinosaur when it comes to pollution.

It’s easy enough to point fingers at corporations that are poisoning our world, but the truth is that we rely on computers for work and play everyday.

These words were researched, written and laid out on Apple computers.

That means that beneath the beautiful brushed aluminum surface and glowing LCD of my beloved PowerBook lie chemicals that are slowly poisoning me and the world around me.

The answer to this frightening fact is not to stop manufacturing computers, although Luddites would certainly rejoice. The answer is far simpler. Safer alternatives to the chemicals used in today’s computers exist and indeed certain companies are capitalizing on this.

We need to start researching the recycling and chemicals management programs of the major computer manufacturers and let our wallets do the talking. Or if you already have a computer, put the powerful poison in that gadget to good use by sending the company that made it an email demanding that they change their ways. The solution to a cleaner electronic world is at our fingertips.

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