Smartphones and mobile phones have made the world a smaller place and added comfort to our lives and since the advent of mobile phones, the sales chart of mobile phones has always pointed upward. According to a report by Gartner, 1.74 billion cell phones were sold in 2012, and 1.80 billion in 2013. The study expects 1.89 billion mobile phones to be sold in 2014 and 1.96 billion in 2015.
However, with all of us buying a new phone or upgrading to a new one, we also need to give some thought to what will happen to pre-existing mobile phones. As per, Server Monkey’s data in 2010, on an average, the US disposed of more than 400,000 mobile phones on daily basis. Since then this number has been increasing continuously. These discarded mobile phones either reach the landfill or more often than end up being processed by improper recycling setups. In case, it reaches the landfill, harmful chemicals from mobile phone e-waste may leak into the soil, contaminate the ground water and enter the food chain causing hazards to the environment and living beings. And when these old mobile phones end up in the hands of improper recyclers, the crude methods they use like leaching and open air incineration for extracting trace metals, releases toxic chemicals in environment, harming the eco-system. Let’s take a deeper look.
Toxic Chemicals in Mobile Phones
Mobile handsets contain numerous chemicals and elements that can be hazardous, if not treated properly while disposal. In 2012, Ann Arbor-based ecology center and technical experts at iFixit conducted a research on 36 different cell-phones to test their toxicity. These included handsets from the following companies:
• Hewlett-Packard Development Company
• HTC Corporation
• Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd
• LG Electronics
• Motorola Inc.
• Nokia Corporation
• Palm Inc.
• Research in Motion (RIM)
• Samsung Electronics
At least one of the following five hazardous chemicals were found in all of these mobile handsets:
Hazards of Mishandling Mobile Phone E-waste:
Let’s look at how these chemicals may be released into the environment and how they can be hazardous for the planet if not disposed in the right manner:
1. Lead: Lead is released when cell phones are heated during processes like open air incineration for extraction of trace metals from printed circuit boards (PCBs). When PCBs in mobile phones are incinerated most of the lead transforms into slag. If this slag is not treated properly, it ends up polluting the air in the form of fumes or dust, causing environmental and health hazards.
When released in the environment, lead alters the natural functions of air and water. On continuous exposure, lead can disrupt the functioning of central and peripheral nervous system, blood system, reproductive system and kidneys. It may also prevent proper brain development in children.
2. Bromine – It is present in mobile phones, primarily as flame retardants for fire safety requirements. Polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers are two types of brominated flame retardants which are considered extremely hazardous for the environment and human health. In many countries, these two brominated flame retardants have been replaced by TBBP-A (tetrabromobisphenol). This chemical is known to be comparatively less hazardous.
Brominated flame retardants can disturb the functioning of the endocrine (hormonal) system. It may cause genotoxic damage by affecting the levels of thyroid stimulating hormones, which increases the risk of cancer.
3. Chlorine – It is present in the form of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) in the plastic component of cell phone. If proper care is not taken while disposing or recycling a cell phone, there is a huge risk of dioxin formation during the burning of plastic in e-waste.
Substantial exposure to these dioxins may cause reproductive failure and suppress the immune system.
4. Mercury – If e-waste gets dumped in the landfill then it leaches from cell-phones into soil and then pollutes the food chain of the region. It is primarily present in the batteries.
Mercury is considered to be toxic for the central and peripheral nervous system. If inhaled as vapor, it can be hazardous for the digestive system, the immune system and the nervous system, causing damage to lungs and kidneys. Inhalation and ingestion may lead to corrosion of skin and eyes. If proper precautions are not taken, exposure to mercury can be fatal.
5. Cadmium – Heating or burning electronic equipment releases Cadmium in the air. When ignorant or unethical recyclers burn plastics, heat metals and shred PCBs, Cadmium and Cadmium oxides are released in the form of dust and fumes.
A single Cadmium smartphone battery has the capacity to pollute 60,000 litres of water. If this contaminated water is consumed by humans, overtime it can accumulate in the kidney and liver and may cause toxic effect on kidney, skeletal system and respiratory system. It is also known as one of the human carcinogens.
Although, one cannot completely get away from the comfort of using a cell-phone but we can still make sure that our e-waste ends up in proper recycling facilities. In order to be sure that our mobile phones or other obsolete electronic equipment is handled by the right recycler, read – responsible e-waste recycling. This will help in the reduction of environmental and health hazards occurring due to the increasing piles of e-waste.