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High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxins, and Human Healthby Elizabeth Grossman
Synopses & Reviews
The Digital Age was expected to usher in an era of clean production, an alternative to smokestack industries and their pollutants. But as environmental journalist Elizabeth Grossman reveals in this penetrating analysis of high tech manufacture and disposal, digital may be sleek, but it's anything but clean. Deep within every electronic device lie toxic materials that make up the bits and bytes, a complex thicket of lead, mercury, cadmium, plastics, and a host of other often harmful ingredients.
High Tech Trash is a wake-up call to the importance of the e-waste issue and the health hazards involved. Americans alone own more than two billion pieces of high tech electronics and discard five to seven million tons each year. As a result, electronic waste already makes up more than two-thirds of the heavy metals and 40 percent of the lead found in our landfills. But the problem goes far beyond American shores, most tragically to the cities in China and India where shiploads of discarded electronics arrive daily. There, they are "recycled": picked apart by hand, exposing thousands of workers and community residents to toxics.
As Grossman notes, "This is a story in which we all play a part, whether we know it or not. If you sit at a desk in an office, talk to friends on your cell phone, watch television, listen to music on headphones, are a child in Guangdong, or a native of the Arctic, you are part of this story."
The answers lie in changing how we design, manufacture, and dispose of high tech electronics. Europe has led the way in regulating materials used in electronic devices and in e-waste recycling. But in the United States many have yet to recognize the persistent human health and environmental effects of the toxics in high tech devices. If Silent Spring brought national attention to the dangers of DDT and other pesticides, High Tech Trash could do the same for a new generation of technology's products.
"Driven by built-in obsolescence and the desire of consumers for smaller, faster and sleeker hardware, millions of discarded plastic computer casings, lead-infused monitors, antiquated cellphones and even dead TV remote controls — the 'effluent of the affluent' — are piling up annually in America's landfills, leaching dangerous toxins, including lead, mercury and arsenic, into the nation's water tables. Such cast-off 'e-waste' is also being shipped to countries like India and China, where for pennies a day workers without masks or gloves boil circuit boards over primitive braziers to extract microchips (along with a slew of noxious elements), after which the silicon chips are bathed in open vats of acid to precipitate out micrograms of gold. In either instance, according to this alarming and angry study, the way in which America currently handles its cyber-age waste amounts to an ongoing but underreported environmental crisis. Grossman (Watershed: The Undamming of America) points to recycling regulations in Europe as models and demands that manufacturers of high-end technology assume more of the burden for safe disposal of discarded electronics. Her call for action is commendable and critical, but this book's often daunting jargon (pages are given over to a difficult discussion of different kinds of bromodiphenyl ethers and their varying impact on the environment) sometimes undercuts its passion." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Grossman follows the trail of electronic waste from landfills in the United States to 'recycling' centers in India and China....Her language is quiet, clear, and compelling." Library Journal
Word is getting out about a metastasizing environmental and health threat: high-tech trash, or e-waste, our cast-aside computers and cell phones, devices dense with toxic substances. Environmental journalist Grossman takes readers on an eye-opening, even shocking, tour of the cyber underground, clearly and methodically explicating the science, politics, and crimes involved in the mishandling of the ever-increasing tonnage of e-waste. Grossman tracks the entire electronics manufacturing process, from mining the heavy metals used in digital machines and gadgets to the serious yet underreported pollution generated by the production of silicon chips. Then there are alarming discoveries regarding the brominated flame retardants used in electronics, poisonous compounds now found in our food and our bodies, and the appalling conditions under which exploited laborers in China, India, and Nigeria break up and burn e-waste, absorbing deadly chemicals that are also released into rivers and the atmosphere. There is an urgent need for e-waste regulation, and Grossman's informative, harrowing, and invaluable report, as well as Giles Slade's Made to Break (2006) and Elizabeth Royte's Garbage Land (2005), are essential for informed public discourse and action. Donna Seaman
An environmental journalist reveals that digital may be sleek, but it's anything but clean. Deep within every electronic device lie toxic materials that make up the bits and bytes, a complex thicket of lead, mercury, cadmium, plastics, and a host of other often harmful ingredients.
About the Author
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Watershed: The Undamming of America and Adventuring Along the Lewis & Clark Trail, and co-editor of Shadow Cat: Encountering the American Mountain Lion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Nation, Salon, Orion, High Country News and other publications.
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