Burning Old Electronics Is Bad News

Lung cancer risks increased from incinerated electronics

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Many electronic devices contain toxic materials, and if incinerated, they can release deadly fumes. These fumes may contain carcinogens that up the risk for lung cancer.

Many people want to recycle their old phones, game systems, computers and TVs to help the environment. This recycled e-waste, however, often gets shipped to other countries where it is crudely incinerated and releases harmful chemicals. New research shows that residents living near an e-waste recycling site in China face elevated risks of lung cancer.

"When recycling electronics, make sure you use a reputable service."

Staci Simonich, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State University in Corvallis, co-authored a study looking at air samples collected from two rooftops in two areas in China.

One location was in a rural village in the southern province of Guangdong, less than a mile from an active e-waste burning site. The electronics are incinerated there to recover precious metals, including silver, gold, palladium and copper. This village was not surrounded by any other industry. The other area was Guangzhou, a city heavily polluted by industry, vehicles and power plants but not e-waste.

Scientists focused their research on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a group of more than 100 chemicals, which are released into the air when burning electronic trash.

Many PAHs are recognized as carcinogenic and linked to lung cancer when inhaled.

Based on the air samples they gathered, authors concluded that those living in the e-waste village were 1.6 times more likely to develop cancer from inhalation than those living in the city.

The researchers estimated that 15 to 1,200 of each million people in the e-waste area would develop lung cancer over their lifetimes on account of PAHs. The likelihood of getting lung cancer in the city was slightly lower at 9 to 737 per million. These approximations do not include lung cancer caused by smoking.

The study also found that the level of airborne carcinogenic PAHs in the e-waste area exceeded China's air quality standards 98 percent of the time and 93 percent of the time in the city.

"In the village, people were recycling waste in their yards and homes, using utensils and pots to melt down circuit boards and reclaim metals," said Simonich. "There was likely exposure through breathing, skin and food—including an intimate connection between e-waste and the growing of vegetables, raising of chickens and catching of fish."

The environmental activist organization Greenpeace International says that e-waste is routinely exported by developed countries to developing areas, such as East, India, Africa and China often in violation of the international law. In the US, Greenpeace estimates that 50 to 80 percent of the waste collected for recycling is being exported in this way.

The Basel Action Network works to keep toxic waste out of the environment. In an interview with NPR, the organization’s executive director, Jim Puckett, recommended that consumers look for reputable recyclers who refurbish devices or use mechanical shredding and high-tech separation devices to separate out the usable metal.

The study was published in January in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided funding for the research.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 1, 2013
Last Updated:
August 19, 2013