Posts Tagged ‘toxic waste’


Green issues are sometimes complex.  We need to recycle many things, like electronics, but we certainly don’t want to poison others in the process.  Efforts to protect the environment and conserve valuable resources must be coupled with proper health and safety procedures.  Unfortunately, just saying this doesn’t make it happen.  Developing countries are becoming a dumping ground for much toxic waste and proper environmental health and safety is being ignored, both by local opportunists and suppliers of e-Waste from developed nations.  From Greenpeace:

This shocking documentary from Greenpeace shows how “second hand goods” exported to Ghana for reuse are actually causing horrendous pollution. “People in the developed countries bring them here to bridge the digital gap but in actual fact they are creating a digital dump.”

Ghana — The latest place where we have discovered high tech toxic trash causing horrendous pollution is in Ghana. Our analysis of samples taken from two electronic waste (e-waste) scrap yards in Ghana has revealed severe contamination with hazardous chemicals.

Similar problems occur in China and, surprisingly, even in developed countries.  See related information about toxic waste dumps all over the world here.

However, you can also read good news about environmental protection in Europe and the effect it is having on US companies.

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Original text copyright © 2008 James K. Bashkin

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As reported by Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post, new regulations in Europe about the use of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals are affecting US manufacturers, if those manufacturers want to maintain exports to European countries. It is no surprise that the Bush administration and US chemical manufacturers oppose these new laws, which require companies to determine the safety of chemicals and materials before they can be used. This approach is contrary to US practice, where the harmful nature of a chemical must be demonstrated before the substance is regulated or banned.

The laws also call for the European Union to create a list of “substances of very high concern” — those suspected of causing cancer or other health problems. Any manufacturer wishing to produce or sell a chemical on that list must receive authorization.

In the United States, laws in place for three decades have made banning or restricting chemicals extremely difficult. The nation’s chemical policy, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, grandfathered in about 62,000 chemicals then in commercial use. Chemicals developed after the law’s passage did not have to be tested for safety. Instead, companies were asked to report toxicity information to the government, which would decide if additional tests were needed.

In more than 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has required additional studies for about 200 chemicals, a fraction of the 80,000 chemicals that are part of the U.S. market. The government has had little or no information about the health hazards or risks of most of those chemicals.

The changes in Europe are welcomed (by me) and many consumer and environmental groups:

The European Union’s tough stance on chemical regulation is the latest area in which the Europeans are reshaping business practices with demands that American companies either comply or lose access to a market of 27 countries and nearly 500 million people.

From its crackdown on antitrust practices in the computer industry to its rigorous protection of consumer privacy, the European Union has adopted a regulatory philosophy that emphasizes the consumer. Its approach to managing chemical risks, which started with a trickle of individual bans and has swelled into a wave, is part of a European focus on caution when it comes to health and the environment.

What a novel idea: that regulatory agencies should protect the consumer and not giant corporations. Not all corporations in the US are protesting: Apple computer has already responded with its MacBook Air, which exceeds projected European standards for the use of toxic materials, quite a feat for a computer, especially in the early stages of these regulatory changes. However,

The EPA has banned only five chemicals since 1976. The hurdles are so high for the agency that it has been unable to ban asbestos, which is widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen and is barred in more than 30 countries. Instead, the EPA relies on industry to voluntarily cease production of suspect chemicals.

“If you ask people whether they think the drain cleaner they use in their homes has been tested for safety, they think, ‘Of course, the government would have never allowed a product on the market without knowing it’s safe,’ ” said Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “When you tell them that’s not the case, they can’t believe it.”

This is an excellent article about welcome changes. With the globalization of commerce, US companies will likely be forced to adopt new standards even if US lawmakers and regulatory agencies continue to lag far behind Europe. New legislation along the lines of the European laws has been introduced by the Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, but it may take a long time for Congress to respond. U.S. Companies will not have the luxury of waiting much longer.

Please understand that I am not in any way “anti-chemical” or anti-industry or anti-US: I don’t expect or hope for “organic computers,” using the common consumer definition of “organic,” nor do I expect to find “all-natural cell phones.” I have worked in the U.S. chemical industry (in the past) and believe that modern society has benefited tremendously from many contributions of the the chemical industry. However, I also believe that transparency is vital for a functioning democracy, and that, once potential problems are discovered with products or ingredients, it is important to assess the risk. I don’t expect us to maintain a lifestyle similar to what has evolved in developed countries without some risk- there just isn’t a free lunch in any area of human endeavor. However, the ignorance of toxic or other deleterious properties of chemicals that may have helped cause their enthusiastic adoption by industry and consumers has long been replaced with hard data on health problems, at least in some cases and for some chemicals. Other chemicals are quite safe, and many other cases remain under-examined. Furthermore, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that there is more than one kind of risk to assess: acute risk due to contact or exposure to a substance, and chronic risk when that substance is introduced into the environment and the food chain. Persistent bio-accumulators, or molecules that are not metabolized, but instead accumulate in increasing amounts as one moves up the food chain, can have serious health consequences. These consequences are caused by estrogen-like behavior in some cases. Similar issues exist with inorganic elements like lead and arsenic from consumer electronic goods that are introduced into landfill, and that leach out into groundwater. Consumers and environmentalists, both groups I belong to, should be aware that these harmful inorganic elements are completely natural, as are uranium and other substances we don’t want to ingest.

While it is important for industry to find safe replacements for many current materials or chemicals in use, it is also important for consumers to recycle electronics (TV’s cell phones, computers, etc.) properly, so that the component materials can be recovered and re-used and kept out of ground water. This recycling should be free to the consumer, subsidized by manufacturers and retail chains, as Best Buy has recently started doing in the US. Of course, the cost will be passed on to the consumer, but that is one of the choices we have to face: do we want to continue poisoning our children or will we

  • use cell phones, etc. for longer periods of time rather than treating them as disposable items
  • refuse to pay a little more for greener, safer technology?

Let’s make choices that protect consumers and the environment while allowing industry to fluorish.

Original text copyright © 2008 James K. Bashkin

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Basel Action Network, named after an agreement on protecting developing countries from toxic waste, criticized 1-800-Got-junk for failing to promise that their free electronic waste recycling program would avoid shipping toxic waste to developing countries.

The story about the Basel Action Network (BAN) vs. 1-800-Got-Junk is supplemented by the following to give a snapshot of where we stand with “good” and “bad” recycling:

  1. Why and how to recycle your electronics
  2. The recycling program that pays you back heads to Europe
  3. Cell Phone Recycling Giant “Pace Butler” will integrate its efforts with environmental groups
  4. Toxic Waste being Dumped in Italy
  5. How to Recycle Plastic- Advice from the EPA
  6. Eight Ways to Green Your Technology
  7. Toxic E-waste Pouring into the Third World
  8. New Biodegradable Plastics could be Tossed into the Sea
  9. Planetsave | China’s Toxic E-Waste Problem Grows Daily

read more about BAN and e-waste | digg story about BAN and E-waste

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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The EPA should be contributing to public health, sustainability, education on complex environmental concerns, and related issues. I know that its members work hard to do so, but they are often thwarted by management. Bob Grant of The Scientist.com wrote about criticism from Congress over the EPA shutting down or limiting access to important libraries (note, free registration may be necessary to view this and other articles linked to below below that are found on The Scientist.com) .

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) closure of several of its research libraries is flawed, unjustified and is depriving academics, government employees, and the public of crucial environmental data, according to a Congressional report released yesterday (Mar. 13).

Of the EPA’s 26 libraries, six libraries have changed their hours of operation, and four others have been shut since 2006. These include its Office of Environmental Information headquarters library and the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics Chemical library, both in Washington, DC.

The report, issued by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO),…

Since I know EPA staff and scientists who are dedicated to making information available to researchers, State and Local governments, and the public, I can only speculate that these unfortunate plans must come from a combination of EPA’s politically-appointed “leadership” and budget cuts imposed by the will of the Bush White House.

In what may be a closely related story, Christopher Lee of the Washington Post reported that:

Unions at the Environmental Protection Agency have pulled out of a long-standing partnership with management, saying Administrator Stephen L. Johnson has failed to deal in good faith on issues such as scientific integrity and job evaluations.

In a Feb. 29 letter to Johnson, 19 union leaders, who represent 10,000 EPA employees, complained that he and other top managers have ignored the advice of unionized workers and the agency’s own principles of scientific integrity. They cited issues that include fluoride drinking-water standards, a California bid to limit greenhouse gases, and mercury emissions from power plants.

It is important to note what Mr. Lee reports about the scientific integrity agreements between EPA management and employees:

The agency’s scientific-integrity principles, jointly developed by unions and managers during the Clinton administration, call for employees to ensure that their scientific work is of the highest integrity, and to represent it fairly, acknowledge the intellectual contributions of others and avoid financial conflicts.

We see yet more examples of how the Bush White House has weakened the EPA in times of great environmental turmoil, when data and public understanding of data are critically important. At a time when the US needs public trust in the EPA, the actions of political appointees involved with environmental decision-making continue to erode that trust. Specific examples include denial of the requested changes to California automotive CO2 emissions standards, registration of toxic and highly carcinogenic methyl iodide as a fumigant, refusal of the Federal government to obey court orders to uphold the Endangered Species Act and related denial of scientific data that was later overturned by the courts.

From NPR:

The chief of the Environmental Protection Agency has authority to set the air quality standards to protect public health and the environment. But the White House is now interfering with new efforts by EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Ignoring scientists is nothing new for Bush, but in this case he also ignored the U.S. Supreme Court. The EPA wanted to include a tougher secondary standard during growing seasons, designed to protect forests, crops and other plants from ozone, which retards plant growth and depletes soil moisture. Alarmed at the costs this would exact on polluters, the White House Office of Management and Budget sent a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson saying the EPA couldn’t impose such limits without considering their economic effect. This is flatly untrue; a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in 2001 held that the EPA did not have to consider the costs of its clean-air regulations, only their scientific basis. When the EPA still refused to back down, the White House sent a curt letter saying the agency had been overruled by the president: The secondary standard was out.

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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Note: a slightly different version of this article was published previously at BlogCritics Magazine under Sci/Tech.

China is suffering from many environmental disasters in its rush to industrialize, but some of its environmental problems are being addressed. Which is leading the race, industrialization or the environment? I provide some examples that contrast environmental practices in China and fully-industrialized nations, including a recent revelation from The Washington Post about the Chinese industrial plants that supply “polysilicon” for solar panels.

I once worked with industry insiders who had visited a Chinese chemical plant. They told a frightening story in which the chemical plant manager acted essentially like a Warlord and clearly made things dangerous for local villagers, especially those who might protest toxic waste dumping or other questionable activities by the plant. It was related to me that jail, or worse, might be the consequence of any protests, and the visit was, in many ways, a disturbing experience for these Western scientists and engineers.

More recent stories in the press, including some discussed on this blog, have continued to add to concerns about China’s environmental practices, even though there are signs that, at least in some cases, official or corporate protection of the environment is improving in China. However, I was also told during a recent interview with noted Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong that some restaurants in China are now claiming to soak live fish and sea food in “clean water” for several days to wash out toxic chemicals. This is not a technique that I would expect to be very successful. In fact, the title of this article is a reference to the powerful novel about Chinese corruption written by Qiu Xiaolong, When Red is Black.

Now there are revelations from reporter Ariana Eunjung Cha and the Washington Post, published March 9th, 2008: found here or at Solar Energy Firms Leave Waste Behind in China (one or both of these links should work). From Ms. Cha, we learn about the Chinese response to the world’s hunger for polysilicon, or polycrystalline silicon, a material used to make most current solar panels* and whose price has risen more than 10-fold in the past five years. The rush to meet market demands has led to many new polysilicon plants being built in China. One such plant, which belongs to Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co. and is “located in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River,” is a focus of the Washington Post article.

The result of all these new polysilicon plants in China, in addition to supplying the growing worldwide need for solar panels, is a set of serious environmental problems, mainly for poor Chinese villagers who populate the rural areas where Chinese chemical plants spring up. These (and other Chinese chemical plants) plants are typically located outside normal tourist routes, and operate outside the law, or outside the stated laws and policies of the Chinese National Government. In fact, in true Warlord fashion, chemical plant managers are often synonymous with local law.

The specific problem with polysilicon manufacture is the byproduct SiCl4 (silicon tetrachloride) which can be recycled and processed safely, as is done by “developed nations.” Silicon tetrachloride is both used and generated in the process of refining silicon to high purity. When simply dumped in the countryside, silicon tetrachloride releases highly-toxic, corrosive hydrochloric acid, and generates a fine powder containing silicon dioxide, the same material that sand is composed of, though the fine nature of the powder allows in to be inhaled or ingested. From the Washington Post article:

“The land where you dump or bury (silicon tetrachloride) will be infertile. No grass or trees will grow in the place. . . . It is like dynamite — it is poisonous, it is polluting. Human beings can never touch it,” said Ren Bingyan, a professor at the School of Material Sciences at Hebei Industrial University.

Because of the environmental hazard, polysilicon companies in the developed world recycle the (silicon tetrachloride), putting it back into the production process. But the high investment costs and time, not to mention the enormous energy consumption required for heating the substance to more than 1800 degrees Fahrenheit for the recycling, have discouraged many factories in China from doing the same.

An independent, nationally accredited laboratory analyzed a sample of dirt from the dump site near the Luoyang Zhonggui plant at the request of The Washington Post. The tests show high concentrations of chlorine and hydrochloric acid, which can result from the breakdown of silicon tetrachloride and do not exist naturally in soil. “Crops cannot grow on this, and it is not suitable for people to live nearby,” said Li Xiaoping, deputy director of the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences.””

Even though initial capital cost of silicon tetrachloride recycling facilities is high the operating costs are also high, I believe that it would be wrong to think that funds aren’t available in China to implement this waste processing technology, it is simply a question of priorities (and greed). In fact, some Chinese are becoming extraordinarily wealthy from polysilicon companies, and the company focused on by the Post‘s article, Louyang Zhonggui, as reported by Ms. Cha,

“is a key supplier to Suntech Power Holdings, a solar panel company whose founder Shi Zhengrong recently topped the list of the richest people in China.”

Nevertheless, the arrogance displayed by Luoyang Zhonggui officials is unfortunately all too familiar to those who follow civil rights or environmentalism in China, or who follow the continuing struggle to introduce tighter environmental controls to the United States over the past 50 years:

“Wang Hailong, secretary of the board of directors for Luoyang Zhonggui, said it is “impossible” to think that the company would dump large amounts of waste into a residential area. “Some of the villagers did not tell the truth,” he said.”

Apparently even the impossible is commonplace in China. Ms. Cha and the Washington Post are to be congratulated for their investigative field work. In fact, the situation is simply terrible:

“Each night, villagers said, the factory’s chimneys released a loud whoosh of acrid air that stung their eyes and made it hard to breath. “It’s poison air. Sometimes it gets so bad you can’t sit outside. You have to close all the doors and windows,” said Qiao Shi Peng, 28, a truck driver who said he worries about his 1-year-old son’s health.

The villagers said most obvious evidence of the pollution is the dumping, up to 10 times a day, of the liquid waste into what was formerly a grassy field. Eventually, the whole area turned white, like snow.”

As I hope I’ve made clear, the disregard for human safety and environmental health exhibited by Luoyang Zhonggui and numerous other Chinese companies is not unique to China. In the US, we’ve seen this attitude from many sources over the years, including mining companies and various energy and chemical producers (please ask if you would like examples, or read my back pages). In Europe, similar problems also are well documented. However, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the European Union, and growing public awareness (dating back to publication of Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring) have eliminated, remediated and prevented many environmental problems (even if there are still areas that badly need intervention or need the government to enforce its own laws and regulations).

So, should China be allowed to poison its own people and land just the way other countries did during the rise of industrialism? Of course, outsiders have little influence on internal Chinese policies, even with the so-called pressure of the Olympic Games facing China now. However, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the problems. While developed nations still have a great deal of work to do at home, and must remain vigilant in protecting the environment, it is a tragedy for the Chinese people that their country is unwilling to learn much from the industrial history of more-industrialized nations.

In the meantime, there is new solar panel technology that doesn’t require polysilicon, for example “solar paint” developed by Nanosolar and “solar ink” recently described by Konarka. Nanosolar’s solar technology is reportedly more efficient than coal at generating electricity. We can hope that this new technology will continue to make inroads into the marketplace and will drive the construction of greener manufacturing facilities. Given the growing demand for green electricity from solar power, such advances can’t come soon enough.

James K. Bashkin © 2008

*Related links: Lifecycle Assessment of Crystalline Photovoltaics by Niels Jungbluth (note this links to a PDF!); for more background on polysilicon fabrication and related processes, see The Handbook of Silicon Semiconductor Technology, W. C. O’Mara, R. B. Herring, L. P Hunt eds., Pub.: William Andrew, Inc. (Noyes Data Corporation/Noyes Publications), 1990, 795pp, Chapter 2, “Polysilicon Preparation” by L. C. Rogers, p 33ff. Also see Wacker Polysilicon, the History of the Future, available as a 13-page PDF or as a (less readable) web page.

A slightly different version of this article was published earlier today (3/11/08) by the author under a nonexclusive license at BlogCritics Magazine: When Light is Dark: Waste from Key Solar Cell Ingredient Damages Chinese Environment. I am grateful to their editors for help.

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Regarding the previous post on “The French Chernobyl”, it has caused some unfortunate confusion. The title of that post was coined by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to refer to the extremely serious PCB contamination of the Rhone river in France. These chemicals are or were used as coolants and insulators for industrial (and some consumer) transformers and capacitors. The massive extent of the pollution and its poisoning of local fish (for human consumption) led to the rather dramatic quote from WWF. This unfortunate situation in France is not a recipe for sustainable development!

Please read the comment on the preceding post from reader rengler and my response, which I also used as the basis for text added at the end of an edited, improved version of the article- I wasn’t clear enough with the first version. Thanks, JKB.


Note:  please see also my Feb 24 post, which clarifies this article a bit more.

“Years of unchecked pollution in France’s Rhone River have taken their toll with the recent discovery of PCB levels 10-12 times the safe limit in the river’s fish.” The World Wildlife fund has called this the “French Chernobyl”. Please read the comments for important clarification.

Given the recent comment about French responses to power and energy needs (with nuclear power) by a reader on this site, and my sense that French policy has been carried out without regard for the environment in some cases, I thought I would add this to the picture of an industrial situation that is seriously dangerous in France. Industrial chemicals used in generators and other electrical equipment have been leaking toxic PCB chemicals into the Rhone river for a long time. The fish are unsafe to eat.

We have plenty of problems with the environment in the USA, resulting from our own companies and from government choices (or abdication of responsibility). I am simply not in favor of energy policies that make environmental problems worse, which is why I do not see nuclear power as a viable answer to our energy needs.

The first version of my blog entry on this story had some inaccuracies, for which I apologize.

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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Clarification from my response to the comment by rengler:

As I mentioned, the term “French Cherbonyl” came from the WWF, and I was merely reporting this.

My point in the first place was to respond with more information to a previous comment by a reader, where a laundry list of countries that handle energy in supposedly better ways than we do in the US was presented. One example was how the French use nuclear power. I objected that these countries are often ruining their own environments with these approaches. I also mentioned that the French have to use the army to force construction of nuclear plants and transportation of waste through their own country.

The article cited in this post was meant to be an example of how French environmental policy is not necessarily something to hold up as a shining example, while at the same time trying to point out that this can be said for US practices and policies (which aren’t necessarily in agreement, as my reports of the need to sue the Federal government to obey Federal law and Federal court rulings indicate, for example in the case of pesticide use affecting Northwest salmon).

The use of PCBs is not linked to nuclear power, as you state: it is linked in a nonessential way to a wide range of cooling and insulating applications in electrical transformers, capacitors and other industrial electrical equipment, as you well know. People who want to read more on the subject can look at this summary sheet: http://www.fisherenvironmental.com/faq_pcb.html

I certainly agree that the term “French Chernobyl” is hyperbole, for the reasons you state. This in itself underscores the insidious dangers of nuclear power, dangers which can’t be equaled by even the worst industrial disasters from other industries.

…Thanks for helping to clarify things so effectively.

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As reported by Environmental News Service and noted on DIGG by carbonneutral and rhedhed, the “New York City Council passed legislation Wednesday that makes New York the first major municipality in the nation to tackle the rising tide of discarded electronics in the waste stream. Manufacturers of computers, TVs and MP3 players will have to take responsibility for the collection of their own electronic products.”

This is an important step and will help the city deal with with huge amount of discarded electronics it sees every year while preventing much of the current pollution of landfill sites.  We need to avoid circumstances like those found in China, where illegal electronics recycling is causing far more harm than good.

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It is nice to see that Air Products has discovered a way for removing mercury and acid rain components from coal-fired electrical plants and other coal-burning facilities. I wonder how practical this will be? Air Products is certainly a very capable and innovative company. From Yahoo News:

“Air Products is a world leader in the development of oxyfuel technology. World scale air separation units (ASU) are required for oxyfuel CO2 capture projects, and Air Products is a proven supplier of this scale of cryogenic air separation plants. Additionally, Air Products’ CO2 purification process uniquely removes sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and mercury during the compression process. CO2 purification and compression is important for the transport and geological storage of CO2 capture projects. The CO2 purification and compression system must be designed to minimize power consumption while meeting the purity specifications for the CO2.”

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I would welcome any discussion of the merits of this system for cleaning up the products of burning coal. It purports to clean up much more than CO2 emissions. While there have been plenty of stories about how “clean coal” is a myth, I’d like to think that each case will be judged on its merits. So, what do people think? Thanks for reading.

© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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Millions of tons of toxic e-waste from around the world are finding their way onto streets and alleyways in Chinese villages as peasants eke out a living reclaiming precious metals from electronic equipment. What isn’t reclaimed goes into unregulated dumping grounds. Reported by AP and others, this is the flip-side of recycling: a good idea, poorly executed, is leaving massive heath problems and environmental problems in China. Frankly, this kind of work needs to be done in moderately or highly sophisticated facilities, not in peoples houses or in unregulated, improperly outfitted facilities. Of course, the same exploitation of Western countries occurred for many years, but we are trying to stop it (and have succeeded in many cases).  China would do well to learn from our more unfortunate tales of industrialization.

Who are we to judge? People whose countries have been there, done that, and seen enough (for the most part).  Of course, the Western world could do much better, too, but the situation reported here is just awful. The resulting health damage and eventual environmental cleanup will costs billions. Doing things properly to start with might require some capital investment, but it is necessary.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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