Heavy Metal(s)

by Carol Baroudi
Apr 8, 2015 10:40 AM ET

“Heavy metal” isn’t associated only with rock music. In sustainability, it refers to real metals like cadmium, mercury and lead. And we can all agree that while a little heavy metal ringing in our earphones is OK, we really don’t want to find heavy metals in our water or soil. However, they’re in the electronics we use every day.

Consider lead. You might not remember when lead was a common ingredient in gasoline. It was 1973 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published “EPA’s Position on the Health Implications of Airborne Lead,” and not too long after, automobile manufacturers introduced the catalytic converter, designed to run only on unleaded fuel. And lead paint causes nervous system damage, stunted growth, kidney damage, and delayed development and is considered a likely carcinogen.

Mercury poisoning has been studied for nearly 100 years, but many of us grew up with our parents sticking mercury thermometers in our mouths. The charge to get mercury out of healthcare is championed by Health Care Without Harm, who in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) has created an initiative to eliminate mercury in thermometers and blood pressure monitoring devices around the globe by 2020. Ironically, we probably have more mercury in our homes now than when mercury thermometers were in their heyday. Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) contain mercury and should not be put in the trash. That means you must return them to retailers when they die. If one happens to break, follow the EPA’s guidance for cleanup.

Cadmium poisoning most often is associated with industrial exposure, cigarettes, and pigments used by artists. The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) has documented known hazards associated with cadmium since 1992.

Do not throw your electronics into the trash – no matter how small the device, no matter how convenient it may be to do so. The metals in e-waste make ordinary trash toxic. It’s why more and more states and municipalities are banning them from landfills. If you don’t know what to do with your e-waste, drop me a line and I’ll give you some suggestions: cbaroudi@arrow.com.