Do Computers & Phones Leach Arsenic When We Use Them? Environmental and public health advocates worry we may be poisoning ourselves with our own devices?

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that computers and electronic devices contain arsenic and other toxins, and if so should I worry about using these products?

—Joanie Deeds, McLean, VA

As any murder mystery enthusiast knows, arsenic can be lethal if ingested in large amounts. Electronics manufacturers use it as an efficient conductor of electricity; useful when periodic strong bursts are needed. But don’t worry—the traces of the naturally occurring element that can be found inside your calculator, watch display, television set or computer are not ample enough to hurt you directly.

arsenic in computersHowever, the toxins in electronics do pose community-wide dangers if not disposed of properly. A recent University of Florida study found that many common electronic devices qualify as hazardous materials according to existing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) definitions due to the arsenic, mercury and lead within. As such, they should only be discarded in permitted hazardous waste treatment facilities.

Unfortunately, though, many of these discarded products will end up in landfills not equipped to handle hazardous waste, and their arsenic and other toxins can make their way into groundwater. The resulting drinking water contamination has been linked to a wide range of human ailments, including bronchitis, liver cirrhosis and even some cancers. In fact, the EPA considers arsenic to be a carcinogen.

A Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition report predicts that 500 million computers—not to mention many more millions of televisions, calculators and MP3 players—will become obsolete by 2007. While there have been no studies on arsenic specifically, researchers have found that about 40 percent of the toxic lead found in U.S. landfills in recent decades originated with discarded electronics. Further, as much as 80 percent of U.S. electronic waste collected for recycling today is sent to China, India and Pakistan, so the computer you abandon today could end up contaminating the drinking water in a developing country tomorrow.

The best alternative to adding to the waste stream is to upgrade or repair your old computer or TV to keep it humming along happily at home or office—and out of any landfill near or far. Ironically enough, then, by keeping your vintage electronics around, you help safeguard your community and others from toxic waste.

But for those who still feel compelled to buy new and trash the old, the Seattle-based Basel Action Network lists electronics recycling companies by region that adhere to high standards with regard to both environmental and health considerations. In addition, American and Canadian consumers can look for products that are also sold in Europe, as manufacturers who sell there must by law avoid using toxins like arsenic and lead. And if your old model still works at all, it may be a candidate for a donation to a local school or through Gifts In Kind, a clearinghouse for usable used stuff. Lastly, some computer makers, including IBM and Hewlett-Packard, have programs to take back and recycle old models in-house.

CONTACTS: U.S. EPA Arsenic Compounds Page, www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/hlthef/arsenic.htm; Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, www.svtc.org; Basel Action Network, www.ban.org/pledge/Locations.html; IBM PC Recycling, www.ibm.com/ibm/environment/products/pcrservice.shtmlM; Hewlett-Packard Recycling, www.hp.com/hpinfo/globalcitizenship/environment/recycle; Gifts in Kind, www.giftsinkind.org.