Connect to share and comment

Every day, 6,300 workers die on the job. GlobalPost investigates the industries that kill them.

Smartphone factory orinoquia 03 26 13
Warning: this may not be good for you. (Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images)

Dirty little smart phones: Ted Smith on the toxins in digital gadgets

From mining to use to disposal, digital gadgets pose risks to health and the environment.

BOSTON — Sure, your phone might be smart.

But is it clean? Is it safe to use? And were the workers who built it free from harm?

Maybe not, says Ted Smith, a longtime Silicon Valley activist.

He contends that smart phones and other digital gadgets are among the most hazardous products known to consumers. 

Smith founded the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in 1982, after contamination from tech manufacturing in San Jose threatened groundwater. He is coordinator of the International Campaign for Responsible Technology and co-editor of "Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry."  

In 2001, he was honored by the Dalai Lama for his environmental leadership.  

(GlobalPost edited this interview for length and clarity.)

GlobalPost: You have said that our digital gadgets are among the world’s most hazardous products. Explain, please:

Ted Smith: You have to think about the whole life cycle of the product. The amount of materials that go into building a cell phone, a computer or a tablet is really astounding. They require huge amounts of metals, so you have all the mining issues. Everything from the conflict minerals in Congo, to gold mining — which is terribly destructive for the environment — to copper, to some of the very exotic rare earth metals. These are extremely hazardous to both human health and the environment.

Beyond the raw materials, the production of components involves a huge number of chemicals — very exotic chemicals. There’s unfortunately a pretty serious track record of the people making those components getting very sick. There are cancer clusters in several parts of the world where electronics are made. Right now the most well defined one is in Korea. Over 100 young workers have gotten cancer after working in the factories making various Samsung products.

You also have huge amounts of e-waste, containing hazardous chemicals and metals. People around the world are getting sick taking apart these products to scavenge the resources. Throughout the lifecycle, there are millions of people being exposed to these hazards. Unfortunately the problem continues to grow because so little attention is being paid to it.

Are these gadgets also hazardous to users?

The World Health Organization recently issued an alert warning consumers that cell phone radiation is a possible human carcinogen. 

Which parts of the smart phones, tablets and laptops are most hazardous for the environment?

The components themselves are the most hazardous — starting with semiconductor chips. These use hundreds of different chemicals, many of them very exotic and many of them poorly tested. Increasingly they’re using nano-materials, which are wild cards at this point in terms of the human and environmental impacts.

The disk drives are similarly risky — they use photoactive chemicals. The circuit boards themselves use very hazardous materials. Then the video displays are very resource intensive.

In addition there are other things like the power supplies and cables. Traditionally all that cabling has involved the use of PVC. The plastic components all have nasty additives such as brominated flame-retardants — which are endocrine disruptors and are suspected of being reproductive hazards. These flame retardants are now being banned around the world, despite still being very prevalent. I think that when you add all that together, you get a very daunting life cycle for the products that we have come to know and rely on.

You mentioned hazards to workers. What specifically do we know?

Going back into the 1970s, when this industry began to develop in Silicon Valley, we noticed people getting sick, often with unusual illnesses. People’s hair would fall out, they would lose their memory, and there were serious cancers and very serious reproductive hazards.

Three different epidemiological studies in the 1980s found high rates of miscarriages amongst the women working in the semiconductor labs. The tech workforce is predominantly younger women of child-bearing age, so the reproductive hazards are extremely important and not very well-regulated. In addition to the cancer cluster in Korea, there have been reports of high rates of cancer in Taiwan at an RCA facility there, in Scotland at a National Semiconductor Facility. There are now reports coming out of China of “cancer villages.”

Is there a specific place in China that is considered ground zero for