Health Impacts


As electronic products become increasingly part of our daily lives and of our waste stream, it is important to consider the potential health risks associated with the materials contained in these products. One problem with adequately defining all of the health impacts associated with electronic products and e-waste is that the terms "electronics" and "e-waste" are very loosely defined and their definitions are not universal. Computers and cell phones are almost always included in discussions of e-waste, but the status of other devices is not always so clear. Legislation may define e-waste and electronic products as a certain subset of all the devices that may potentially be defined as such. Small appliances like microwaves and devices such as smoke detectors may be considered e-waste at their end-of-life (EOL), for example, but not considered e-waste as defined in a given regulation.

Humans can be exposed to some of the hazards associated with electronic products and e-waste in a variety of ways. Occupational exposure may occur at manufacturing plants as well as at recycling and refurbishing facilities. Consumers may be exposed to substances as part of their everyday use of devices (e.g. brominated flame retardant residues in dust found on computers, contact with toner dust when changing cartridges in printers, etc.) or as the result of direct or indirect contamination of the environment. For example, air pollution caused by the incineration of e-waste or groundwater contamination resulting from inadvertent leaching of materials from landfills could affect public health. In some cases, reclamation operations in developing countries may result in direct pollution (e.g. dumping of acids used for materials separation directly into rivers) because of lax regulations or lack of enforcement.

The following are some of the potentially hazardous materials contained in various electronic products or associated either with electronics manufacturing or e-waste processing. It is important to note that the risk associated with any chemical is related to dosage, frequency of exposure, the specific characteristics of the chemical and other factors. Some of the substances listed here may be found in small or trace amounts in any individual electronic device, and thus a single device would not likely pose a threat to a consumer using the product as intended within their home or business. Such substances become a concern when multiple devices are accumulated for disposal or processing. Other substances on this list are persistent, bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), meaning they do not break down readily and can build up in the fatty tissues of humans and other animals. These substances are of particular concern because of their tendency to build up in food chains. Some of the following substances are considered endocrine disruptors, meaning they may mimic a naturally occurring hormone or block hormone activity in ways that affect biological systems (e.g. reproductive systems, neurological systems, metabolism, etc.), potentially resulting in disease or developmental problems. Still other substances listed below are known or suspected carcinogens.

Click on a chemical or element in the list below to view the corresponding U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) ToxFAQs information. The links to toxicity descriptions here are intended for information use only. In some cases, links to sites other than ToxFAQs are included below for further information or clarification.

Biohazard Other Substances of Interest: Links for Further Information: If you have suggestions for materials or links to include on this page, please contact Joy Scrogum.