Hazardous substances in IT products — a human health and environmental risk

Hazardous substances used in IT products present a wide variety of human health and environmental risks. Throughout the life cycle, products may release dioxins, halogens and other toxicants, which can persist in the natural environment and the human body.

According to a global UN report dated in August 2018, covering all industries, one worker dies every 15 seconds because of exposure to hazardous substances. Hazardous substances lead to more deaths than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. People in low and middle income countries are being affected the most and represent nine out of ten casualties. We are facing an international health crisis that is in need of global action.

Hazardous cleaners and solvents are used in the process of manufacturing IT products. Toxic substances are also used in the products themselves. Both types of hazardous substances are problematic from a human health and also an environmental perspective, throughout the product life cycle. Workers may be exposed during manufacturing, and substances risk leaking out into the natural environment when products are incinerated, placed in landfill or recycled in an unsafe way.

Many health risks linked to hazardous substances

Two examples of potentially hazardous substances are flame retardants, included in IT products to meet flammability safety requirements and plasticizers, used to make plastics, especially cables, more durable and flexible. While these chemicals are solving one problem, they risk creating another, a human health and environmental impact that can disrupt the hormonal system and increase risk for memory and attention disorders, obesity, fertility problems and cancer. These substances are often persistent and bioaccumulate in living organisms, which means that even small amounts can cause serious health problems in the long term. The risk of harmful DNA alterations is greatest for the developing cells in children that are exposed before birth by the absorption of substances transferred to their bodies through the umbilical cord and after birth by other human absorption routes such as breast milk and dust particles.

Another group of hazardous substances found in IT products are heavy metals, for example cadmium, mercury, lead and hexavalent chromium. They are used in plastics, paints and components such as screen backlights and circuit boards. These elements are considered systemic toxicants that are known to induce multiple organ damage, even at lower levels of exposure. They are also classified as human carcinogens by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

The presence of hazardous substances in materials makes those materials less reusable and recyclable. These materials risk being discarded directly into the waste stream or incinerated, adding to the e-waste problem and the loss of valuable materials. It also hinders the development of the circular economy, which is built around the concept of keeping materials in use and avoiding waste altogether. If safer substances are being used instead, these materials can be brought back into the material loop which is much more resource efficient.

Knowledge and transparency is key to safer practices

While some hazardous substances have been phased out through legislation, too little is known about the substances being used to replace them. Regulatory developments lag far behind where progress needs to be. While the chemical industry is fast-moving, with large lobbying resources, regulating chemicals is a slow and complex process.

Over 140 million chemicals are listed in the CAS registry. Another 25,000 new chemicals are added every day. It is estimated that around 350,000 chemicals are in use on the market, but only about one percent have been studied for their impact on humans and the environment. In addition, restrictions are often regional and hazardous substances can continue to be used in countries where they are not yet banned. It’s clear that today’s chemical assessment procedures are not keeping up with the increasing number of chemicals available.

Making safer chemical substitutions is complex in the global IT product supply chain. Product manufacturers rarely have access to the information needed to make proactive choices for safer alternatives. That expertise lies with the chemical manufacturer who treats this as confidential business information. The consequence is that banned substances risk being replaced with similar substances that may pose similar, or even greater risks. The only way to close the data gaps is to assess these substances and share information about their level of hazard, along with information on safer substitutions.

This issue cannot be solved by one organization alone — it’s too complex. To make progress, the IT industry, NGOs, independent experts and other stakeholders must work together. Multi-stakeholder initiatives with diverse viewpoints have the power to be innovative, solutions-oriented and have an industry-wide effect.