Some of the world’s biggest IT companies and their suppliers are contaminating rivers and underground wells in developing countries with a wide range of hazardous chemicals, according to Greenpeace.
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The environmental campaigning group has released a report called ‘Cutting Edge Contamination: A study of environmental pollution during the manufacture of electronic products’.
Analysis of samples taken from industrial estates in China, Mexico, the Philippines and Thailand reveals the release of hazardous chemicals in each of the three sectors investigated: printed wiring board (PWB) manufacture, semiconductor chip manufacture and component assembly.
Most noteworthy, said Greenpeace, was the discovery at most of the investigated sites of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a group of brominated chemicals used as flame retardants, and of phthalates, chemicals used in a wide range of processes and materials, though they are most commonly used as plasticisers (softeners) in some plastics.
“Over recent years we have seen an increasing concern over the use of hazardous chemicals in electronic products but attention has focused on the contamination released during disposal or ‘recycling of electronic waste’,” said Dr Kevin Brigden from the Greenpeace Research Laboratories.
“Our findings of contamination arising during the manufacturing stage make it clear that only when we factor in the complete lifecycle will the full environmental costs of electronic devices begin to emerge,” he said.
Zeina Al-Hajj, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace International, said, “There is shockingly little information on precisely which major brand companies are supplied by which manufacturing facilities.
“Responsibility for the contamination lies as much with those brands as with the facilities themselves.
“There has to be full transparency regarding the supply chain within the electronics industry, so that brand owners are forced to take responsibility for the environmental impacts of producing their goods.”
The study also documents the contamination of groundwater aquifers at a number of sites, particularly around semiconductor manufacturers, with toxic chlorinated volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and toxic metals including nickel.
Contamination of groundwater is of particular concern, said Greenpeace, since local communities in many places use groundwater for drinking water.
At one site, the Cavite Export Processing Zone (CEPZA) in the Philippines, three samples contained chlorinated VOCs above World Health Organisation (WHO) limits for drinking water.
One sample contained tetrachloroethene at nine times above the WHO guidance values for exposure limits and 70 times the US Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level for drinking water.
Elevated levels of metals, particularly copper, nickel and zinc, were also found in groundwater samples in some sites.
The use of such toxic chemicals in manufacturing processes also poses potential risks to workers through workplace exposure.
Wastewater discharged from an IBM site in Guadalajara, Mexico contained hazardous compounds, including some (such as the potent hormone disruptor nonylphenol) that were not found at other sites.
IBM’s Supplier Conduct Principles Guidelines state that suppliers should operate in a manner that is protective of the environment. “IBM should act upon our findings and investigate activities at the site in order to prevent any releases of persistent organic compounds from the Guadalajara site,” Al-Hajj said.
IBM has so far not responded to the Greenpeace report.
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