The revolution in electronics design and manufacturing that brought PCs, cellphones and other gadgets to every corner of the earth has had untold social, economic and educational benefits. But the spread of electronic goods has had negative effects, as well. Many electronics contain a rash of materials that are toxic to both human health and the environment – a problem from which equipment used in private branch exchanges (PBXs) is not exempt.
New or Old, Electronic Products Spell Trouble
It’s worth noting that newer devices are far less toxic than the electronic wares of 10 or 20 years ago. Tough restrictions (like the European Union’s RoHS rules) have forced device makers to limit dangerous materials in their products; some manufacturers are voluntarily eliminating certain chemicals, too. But older electronic devices – PBX equipment included – are particularly suspect, and even the latest gadgets are likely to have trace amounts of toxic minerals or chemicals.
These toxic substances appear in circuit boards, connectors, semiconductors, batteries, plastics and other components, meaning that they’re all but guaranteed to be present in PBXs (which include dozens of separate parts). And the average PBX system lasts no more than seven years, so it’s effectively a ticking time bomb of toxins.
Causes for Concern
The list of harmful device “ingredients” includes lead, mercury, cadmium, PVCs, arsenic and beryllium. Let’s take a closer look at these materials and detail the effects each can have on the human body.
Lead – It’s banned from paint and gasoline for a reason. In children, lead can cause behavioral issues and developmental disabilities. In adults, it’s been linked to high blood pressure, reproductive problems and memory loss.
Mercury – Mercury has been tied to nervous-system disorders in both children and adults. It can also cause emotional changes, motor-system problems and respiratory failure.
PVCs – A common plastic, polyvinyl chloride has been linked to central nervous system issues, lung irritation and reproductive system damage.
Arsenic – A known and highly potent carcinogen, arsenic may also increase one’s risk of developing tuberculosis. Exposure in utero can cause a host of developmental problems and has been linked to higher child mortality.
Beryllium – Another known carcinogen, beryllium can cause irreversible and life-shortening lung scarring among miners and processing-plant workers.
The Real Risk of Toxins
It’s not just IT professionals who are exposed to the dangerous chemicals and minerals that electronic devices contain. Because much of the world’s e-waste is disposed of improperly, toxic substances in electronics leach from landfills into water supplies and get released into the air. In Africa – a continent with far fewer electronic devices than the developed world – the burning of e-waste is already sparking cries for stiffer regulations on disposal.
And the U.S. is even more complicit in the e-waste crisis, simply because Americans throw away so many electronics every year. According to National Geographic, only about a quarter of the nation’s e-waste is recycled, and an estimated 142,000 computers and 416,000 mobile devices were tossed every DAY in 2010.
What Can Be Done?
While e-waste is a major concern, today’s electronics are far less dangerous than those of a couple decades ago. Many retailers sponsor recycling programs that pledge to dispose of used electronics safely and responsibly, and device manufacturers in some parts of the world are required to take back and recycle the products they sell.
Still, the single best thing any individual or organization can do to ameliorate the e-waste problem is to simply buy fewer electronics. Saying “no” to a costly, complex and toxin-ridden PBX system is a smart strategy for any company concerned about the health of its workers and the environment.
Originally published Apr 04, 2012, updated Sep 20, 2021