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Waste in the Wireless World - Toxicity of Cell Phone Waste

As described in detail in Waste in the Wireless World, cell phones (and other electronic devices) are an especially problematic component of the waste stream because they contain a large number of hazardous substances, which can pollute the air when burned in incinerators and leach into soil and drinking water when buried in landfills. Many of these toxic substances — including antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc — belong to a class of chemicals known as persistent toxins, which linger in the environment for long periods without breaking down. Some of them — including the metals lead and cadmium — also tend to accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals, building up in the food chain to dangerous levels even when released in very small quantities. These persistent, bioaccumulative toxins, or PBTS, have
been associated with cancer and a range of reproductive, neurological, and developmental disorders. They pose a particular threat to children, whose developing systems are especially vulnerable to toxic assault. Most of the persistent toxins and PBTs contained in cell phones are in the printed wiring board and liquid-crystal display.

The PBT of greatest concern in cell phones is lead, a heavy metal recognized as a problem material throughout the world. Lead is a suspected carcinogen, has adverse effects on the central nervous system, immune system, and kidneys, and has been linked to developmental abnormalities. Its main application in cell phones and other electronic products is in the solder used to attach components to each other and to the printed wiring board. Within the European Union (EU), the Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous
Substances in Electrical and Electronic Products (RoHS Directive) mandates that, by July 1, 2006, no new electrical and electronic products put on the market in any of the EU’s 15 member states may contain lead (among a handful of other particularly hazardous substances). Numerous efforts are under way to find alternatives to lead solder that do not compromise the performance of electronic products. (For more information on the RoHS Directive, see INFORM’s fact sheet “The WEEE and RoHS Directives: Highlights and Analysis,” July 2003, 

Another hazardous constituent of cell phones is brominated flame retardants, which are added to plastics to reduce the risk of fire. They are used primarily in the phones’ printed wiring boards, cables, and plastic housings. Research indicates that some brominated flame retardants can be persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic, while the impacts of others are still being evaluated. Two categories of flame retardant — polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) — have been associated with cancer and disruption of the immune and endocrine systems. In addition, some of these substances can form dioxins and furans, a group of highly toxic and persistent by-products of combustion, when products that contain them are incinerated or recycled. Like lead, the use of PBBs and PBDEs in electrical and electronic products sold in the EU is banned under the RoHS Directive beginning in July 2006. 

The rechargeable batteries that power cell phones also contain a number of highly toxic substances. Through the mid-1990s, the most commonly used power source in cell phones was nickel-cadmium batteries (Ni-Cds). Cadmium is a PBT and probable human carcinogen that can cause lung, liver, and kidney damage and is toxic to wildlife. Because of its toxicity, cadmium is banned from electronic products under the EU’s RoHS Directive. Lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries are increasingly replacing Ni-Cds in cell phones, but these contain cobalt, zinc, and copper — all heavy metals that can be toxic to plants, wildlife, and human beings. Although a system is in place — the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. (RBRC) — to collect and recycle rechargeable batteries in the US, few consumers are aware of the program and most of these batteries wind up in the trash. (It is important to note that recycling is not a panacea and can have its own environmental impacts, including the release of toxic chemicals into air, surface water, and public sewage systems as a result of the recycling process.) 

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