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Perceiving poisons April 21, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools.
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recycled   Each morning, when I flick the switches to power on the lab, I wonder how much power we are using. We try not to turn on the computers until we need them. Despite those few habits of ecology, other nagging issues lurk just beyond our conscious minds that we cannot soon ignore. Last week I calculated how long it takes a new computer to become an old one. In our college, it is about five years. I am sure in other colleges they age even faster; in some public schools I have found working Apply IIe machines.

This evening I listened to a podcast story from the BBC about the vast number of computers that end up completely off the radar. Some businesses donate them to be scavenged for major parts, but others leave the country by the pallet, the pallets leave the country by the ton. Some end up in Nigerian dumpsites while others are broken apart and shipped to different countries.

The scrap metal from cases is highly prized in China but what has become apparent is that circuit boards are being speculatively broken apart in India and China for parts. People are burning or melting wires from the circuit boards. They cook some circuit boards to release their elements. The process, often crudely performed in small villages, also releases toxic agents like dioxins. The process also releases heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and mercury. These toxic agents enter the food chain and the local water table. One village in China has had its water supply completely poisoned. Villages must bring in fresh water now.

Where I live in Tucson, I have friends who moved from the south side of the city a few years back and bought a house with lawsuit money. Their house had been in the direct path of a plume of poison called TCE, trichloroethylene, a degreasing solvent known to cause neurotoxicity effects. This groundwater plume was five miles long and two miles wide. It is not part of a thirty square mile Superfund site designated by the Environmental Protection Agency. If this sort of pollution can happen here with strict regulations and a robust communication network, I shudder to think what money could buy in a poorer nation.

According to the BBC piece, used circuitboards are selling for over five thousand dollars a ton and the business practice is largely unregulated. I know I am contributing to the problem if I fail to ask questions. Perhaps I should delay the inevitable by turning the used circuitboards we generate into wall art. I am sure it would just be a matter of time before they were declared a fire or pollution hazard.

I should investigate this a little.

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