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E-waste can contain nasties such as selenium, mercury, chromium, arsenic, lead and PCBs

By GreenCompany | March 17, 2013

There’s no doubt that the chemicals contained in old TVs, computers and even that old Atari game system stashed away in the basement are bad news. Recycling these old toxic gadgets won’t make the problem go away, however.

Articles about waste electronics frequently cite lead, mercury and cadmium as the nasty substances we can prevent from poisoning our planet if we ensure that waste electronics are processed responsibly. A closer look reveals that there is more to the story.

E-waste can contain selenium, mercury, chromium, arsenic, TCE, cadmium, lead, PVC, Barium, BFRs, PCBs, and if treated improperly can produce Dioxins and Furans during disposal. The scary part though, is that these toxic chemicals can be found in places one would never expect – like medicine, farming, paint, and even in the carpet in your home.

Below are the chemicals, the effect exposure can have on the human body, and other places they are used.

The chemicals and their effects on the human body listed were identified by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition as being present in e-waste and the applications of these chemicals was found by searching wikipedia.


Exposure to high concentrations causes Selenosis, which can cause hair loss, nail brittleness, and neurological abnormalities such as numbness and other odd sensations in the extremities.

Uses include:
Glass and ceramic manufacture as a colouring agent.
Photocopying, photocells, light meters and solar cells.
Surge protection for DC circuits
X-Ray & Traditional photography


Exposure can cause lung cancer, and chronic beryllium disease affecting lungs.

Uses include:
High-speed aircraft, missiles, space vehicles, and communication satellites.
Spot-welding electrodes, springs, non-sparking tools and electrical contacts.
Tweeter and mid-range audio loudspeaker construction
In 1968 Porsche employed brake discs made of Beryllium in the 909.


Exposure through ingestion or inhalation can cause central nervous system damage and kidney damage.

Uses include:
Fishing lures
Blood Pressure Meters
Mercury-vapour, neon and fluorescent lamps.
Refining gold and silver ores, used in Brazil and by illegal miners in South Africa.
Gun barrel bore cleaner
Smoke detectors
Home thermostats
Disposable Batteries
Dental Amalgams
Vaccine preservative


Exposure can cause strong allergic reaction and DNA damage to cells. Workers exposed at disposal stage and may be released into the environment from landfills and incineration.

Uses include:
Molds for the firing of bricks.
Leather tanning
Magnetic tape manufacturing
Anti-corrosive in well drilling muds
Slimming aid or dietary supplement in medicine
Gasoline additive.
High-temperature electrical conductor.
Green pigment in paints, ceramic, varnishes
Chrome plating

Long-term exposure may cause lung cancer, nerve damage and various skin diseases. Arsine gas, used in tech manufacturing is the most toxic form of arsenic.

Uses include:
19th century colouring agent in sweets.
Pressure-treated wood
Medicine during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries
Agricultural insecticides and poisons.
Used in animal feed to prevent disease and stimulate growth
Semiconductor material, used in integrated circuits
Laser diodes and LEDs to directly convert electricity into light

Trichloroethylene (TCE)

Exposure to TCE (depending on amount and route) can cause liver and kidney damage, impaired immune system function, impaired fetal development and/or death. Manufacturing workers and communities where TCE leaches into drinking water are at greatest risk.

Uses include:
Produced in the 1920s to extract vegetable oils from plant materials such as soy, coconut, etc.
Coffee decaffeination
Preparation of flavouring extracts from hops and spices
Dry cleaning solvent
Degreaser for metal parts
Ethanol production
Gaseous anesthetic used between 1930s – 1960s in Europe and North America


Long-term exposure can cause kidney damage and damage to bone structure. Also a known carcinogen. Short term or acute exposure can cause weakness, fever, headache, chills, sweating and muscle pain.

Uses include:
Batteries (especially Ni-Cd batteries)
Plastic stabilizers
Electroplating (6% cadmium)
Nuclear fission (atomic bombs)
Television & Computer Monitor phosphors
Semiconductors for light detection or solar cells


Exposure can cause brain damage, nervous damage, blood disorders, kidney damage and developmental damage to fetus. Children are especially vulnerable. Acute exposure can cause vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, coma or death.

Uses include:
Lead-acid battery used extensively in car batteries
Coloring element in ceramic glazes
Glazing bars for stained glass or other multi-lit windows
Bullets for firearms and fishing sinkers
Sound deadening layer in sound studios
Candle-making to ensure a longer, more even burn
Shielding from radiation, e.g. in x-ray rooms
Molten lead is used as a coolant, eg. for lead cooled fast nuclear reactors
Lead glass is composed of 12-28% lead oxide.
Organ pipes
Solder for electronics
High voltage power cables as sheathing material
Ballast keel of sailboats
Added to brass to reduce machine tool wear
SCUBA diving weight belts
Tire balancing

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Most widely used plastic, found in everyday electronics. When burned, produces large quantities of hydrogen chloride gas, which combines with water to form hydrochloric acid. Inhaling hydrochloric acid can cause respiratory problems. Production and incineration of PVC creates dioxins.

Uses include:
Vinyl siding
Window profiles
Pipe, plumbing and conduit
Plastic Pressure Pipe Systems for pipelines in the water and sewer
Hoses and tubing
Roofing membranes
Magnetic stripe cards
Integrated circuit boards
Electrical cable insulation

Exposure may lead to brain swelling, muscle weakness, damage to heart, liver and spleen, or increased blood pressure.

Uses include:
Drilling mud, a weighting agent in drilling new oil wells
X-ray imaging of the digestive system (barium meals and barium enemas)
Rat poison
Brick making
Spark plug wire
Electrodes of fluorescent lamps
Removes the last traces of oxygen from vacuum tubing
Rubber production
Phosphoresces after exposure to the light
CRT monitors & televisions
Welding rail tracks together
Green tracer ammunition
Barium titanate was proposed in 2007 to be used in next generation battery technology for electric cars
Barium Fluoride is used in infrared applications

Brominated Flame Retardants
Suspected of hormonal interference (damage to growth and sexual development), and reproductive harm. Used to make materials more flame resistant but studies reveal BFRs in breast milk, and blood of electronics workers, among others.

Uses include:
Printed circuit boards
Plastic covers of computers
Plastic covers of television sets & monitors
Domestic kitchen appliances

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
Toxic effects of PCBs include immune suppression, liver damage, cancer promotion, nervous damage, reproductive damage (both male and female) and behavioural changes. Widely used (prior to 1980) in transformers and capacitors. Though banned in many countries, it is still present in e-waste.

Uses include:
Coolants and insulating fluids for transformers and capacitors
Plasticizers in paints and cements
Stabilizing additives in flexible PVC coatings of electrical wiring and electronic components
Pesticide extenders
Cutting oils
Reactive flame retardants
Lubricating oils
Hydraulic fluids
Wood floor finishes (such as Fabulon and other products of Halowax in the U.S.)
De-dusting agents
Water-proofing compounds
Casting agents
Vacuum pump fluids
Fixatives in microscopy
Surgical implants
Carbonless copy (NCR) paper

Dioxins and Furans
Exposure can cause hormonal disruptions, damage to fetus, reproductive harm, and impairment of immune system. These highly toxic compounds bio-accumulate (concentrate in the body) and persist in the environment.

As you can see we are surrounded by a chemical cocktail in our everyday lives. We all must work at all levels including government and industry to reduce our need and overall use of the chemicals and compounds. So take a closer look at the world around you and you might be startled to see what is lying underneath!

Category: Green Living
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