by Elizabeth Grossman

Far-reaching and ambitious recommendations laid out at a meeting of the United Nations Strategic Approach to International Chemical Management (SAICM) could significantly reduce occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in the electronics industry – and do so at every stage of product life, from component design and manufacturing to recycling. If implemented, these recommendations would reduce health hazards for the thousands of workers employed at electronics production plants worldwide and begin to reduce environmental health hazards for those involved in electronics recycling, as well as for communities where these facilities are located and consumers who use these products.

Three international bodies – the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and leadership of the Basel Convention on the trade of hazardous waste and Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants – convened an April workshop in Vienna involving more than 100 delegates representing 32 different governments, along with non-governmental organizations (including labor unions) and industry representatives. The participants called for policies that will:

  • eliminate chemical hazards during product design;
  • phase out currently used hazardous substances;
  • improve transparency on information about materials;
  • ensure equal protection from hazardous substances for workers, communities, and consumers;
  • prevent export of hazardous electronic waste from developed to developing countries;
  • control international traffic of “near-end-of-life” equipment, and take into account the special needs of small developing island nations.

These recommendations are remarkable in that they come from such a diverse group and call for increased transparency, producer responsibility, and worker health and safety – changes that the electronics industry has historically resisted. “These new recommendations should begin a move toward a new manufacturing paradigm of true prevention and precaution which needs to be urgently implemented by large companies as well as subcontractors,” said Amanda Hawes of Worksafe, an organization based in Oakland, California. “What’s very important,” she said later on a phone call discussing the meeting, “is the recognition that worker protection from chemical hazards is as important as community protection, and that there was representation from so many countries. This was the first time this issue was endorsed in this way. It was transformative.”

Chemicals throughout the life cycle
High-tech electronics manufacturing is a chemicals-intensive business. The manufacture of silicon wafer and semiconductor chips, circuit board assembly, production of monitors, screens, batteries, capacitors, keyboards, cases, along with peripheral and specialized components – printer inks, cables, and automotive electronics to name a few – all currently involve the used of numerous hazardous materials. Use of these substances has, over the lifetime of the electronics industry, exposed hundreds of workers to potential health hazards during new product manufacturing and when used and obsolete electronics are recycled or otherwise discarded. Without major changes, it will continue to do so.

Among the chemical hazards associated with electronics production are brominated flame retardants and other plastics additives, mercury, lead and other heavy metals, volatile organic compounds that are used as solvents and cleaners, perfluorinated compounds, acids, and toxic elements used in semiconductor production, and at the end-of-life, the chemicals released when electronics are dismantled and plastics from e-waste dumped and burned, as it often is in developing countries. While electronics recycling provisions and requirements have increased markedly in the past decade, environmentally unsound and socially irresponsible handling of e-waste continues to be an enormous problem worldwide. A current estimate of the volume of U.S. exported e-waste alone come to enough to fill a stack of shipping containers eight miles high, with countries throughout Asia and Africa receiving most of these exports – shipments that include both repairable electronics and equipment destined for dumping.

Over the past year I’ve spoken with electronics industry workers working in China, Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, and one of the concerns they’ve raised that they have very little if any information about the chemicals they are working with and exposed to on the job. Many have colleagues who have become ill while employed in semiconductor, automotive electronics, cell-phone, and flat-screen production. Many have health problems themselves, but none had definitive information about the materials they are working with, which is essential to determining possible causes of illness. These recommendations should improve access to this information and also reduce chemical hazards to which these workers are exposed. They also call, explained Hawes, for use of “the precautionary principle where full data is not available.”

Upstream, midstream, and downstream
To address these issues comprehensively, the Vienna meeting divided the electronics-product life cycle into three sections. An upstream workshop considered issues of materials disclosure and finding safe alternatives to toxic substances; a midstream group looked at the production process of everything to raw materials to technical components; and a downstream group addressed end-of-life and electronic waste issues. Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network noted that the recommendations are “a strong statement that all solutions are to found upstream,” and involve improved transparency “so we know what’s in all products irrespective of confidential business information.”

NGOs involved included Asia Monitor Resource Center, Basel Action Network, Clean Production Action, Toxics Link (India), the International Labor Organization, Korean Institute of Labor Safety and Health (represented by Dr. Jeong-ok Kong, who’s been advocating on behalf of what are now over a hundred Samsung workers diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses), and Worksafe. Industry participants included the Information Technology Industry Council, International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative, and Inventec Performance Chemicals.

“The countries of the global south are very tired of being dumped on. We’ve got to stop the dumping. But the solution lies in the front end, not just in the back end,” said Ted Smith of the International Campaign for Responsible Technology, who co-chaired the “mid-stream” workshop.

These recommendations will be taken to the next SAICM meeting to be held later this year in Belgrade. The electronics industry recommendations are part of a larger UN effort to improve information on chemicals use in several industry sectors that now also include toys, construction materials, and textiles. Overall recommendations will be presented to a larger United Nations Environment Program meeting next year in Geneva.

Can these recommendations be implemented, I asked Ted Smith. He responded by saying, “That’s the $64 question, but coming from such a global body of experts, this is the direction things are going.”

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

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