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 toxins, which can persist in the natural environment and the human body.

According to a recent UN report covering human rights of workers and exposure to toxic substances, one worker dies every thirty seconds because of exposure to hazardous substances at work. 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.

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. Additives may leak from plastics during the use phase and accumulate in dust, harming both our health and the environment. 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 are flame retardants, included in IT products to prevent them from catching fire, and phthalates, commonly used as plasticizers, making plastics, especially cables, more durable and flexible. While these chemicals are effective, they are at the same time known to disrupt the hormonal system, increase risk for memory and attention disorders, obesity, fertility problems and cancer. These substances are often persistent and can bioaccumulate in living organisms, which means that even small amounts can cause serious health problems in the long term. Even newborn babies are affected when the substances transfer to their bodies through the umbilical cord and breast milk.

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 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).

Hazardous substances in materials make those materials less reusable and recyclable, which hinders the development of the circular economy. These materials risk being discarded directly into the waste stream or incinerated, adding to the e-waste problem. 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.

When a chemical is banned, it will be replaced with another. If that substitute is equally — or even more — hazardous, no progress is made. A certain chemical can be modified slightly and even though it most likely has the same hazardous properties, it is technically and legally a new substance that will have to be tested before it is banned.

Of the 140 million chemicals registered to CAS, only 1,500 have been researched enough to give us some kind of idea about their effects. Another 25,000 new chemicals are registered every day. Risk assessment procedures simply are not keeping up with the increasing number of chemicals available.

The only way to close the data gaps is to assess these substances and share information about their level of hazard. Better knowledge and transparency around chemicals is needed, along with a pathway for making safer substitutions. Otherwise the risk is that banned substances are replaced by alternatives that pose new or even greater risk.

This issue cannot be solved by one brand or company alone — it’s too complex. To make progress, industry, NGOs, independent experts and other stakeholders must work together. Multi-stakeholder initiatives with diverse stakeholders have the power to be innovative, solutions-oriented and focus on core values.

What you can do

Demonstrate engagement! Ask your vendor for a full listing of hazardous substances used in the product.

Make sure all products are handed over to reliable and safe recycling facilities at the end of their usable life.

Buy products that are independently verified to use safer alternatives to hazardous substances.

How TCO Certified helps reduce risks

Criteria in TCO Certified restrict the use of hazardous substances and drive a shift towards transparency and use of safer alternatives.

  • Non-halogenated flame retardants and plasticizers are included in the TCO Certified Accepted Substance List, which means that substances can only be used if they have been independently verified by approved toxicologists as safer alternatives, following a review of their effects on health and the environment. This process is carried out in line with GreenScreenⓇ for Safer Chemicals. These accepted substances are published on the TCO Certified Accepted Substance List.
  • Criteria in TCO Certified aim to reduce or eliminate the use of hazardous substances in IT products, covering heavy metals, halogens, non-halogenated flame retardants and plasticizers.
  • We demand that the recommended personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers using toxic substances at work is provided and that workers are educated on the risks involved in handling hazardous process chemicals. Each factory must have a certified health and safety management system to help create a necessary level of competence in this area.
  • We’re gathering information to find out what process chemicals are being used in the factories, to be to begin the process of identifying safer alternatives.

TCO Certified is the world’s most comprehensive sustainability certification for IT products, helping you make responsible product choices that drive the industry in a sustainable direction. Using TCO Certified also supports your organization in taking the next step in social and environmental responsibility.

Other sustainability issues connected to IT products
Conflict minerals used in IT products drive wars and human rights abuses
Social and environmental challenges in the IT product supply chain
A growing, toxic waste stream where valuable finite resources are lost
The circular economy — a way of building a brighter and more resourceful future
Sources of information