Sustainability Impacts Overview: Chemicals of Concern

February 3, 2021

The EPEAT ecolabel empowers purchasers to meet their organizational sustainability goals through their purchasing decisions. Products available through EPEAT include computers, monitors, copiers, mobile phones, televisions, and servers. EPEAT is just one of several sustainable purchasing resources freely available from the Global Electronics Council (GEC).

Why are Chemicals of Concern a Sustainability Problem?

Concerns about the chemicals used in electronic products are related to the potential exposure risks throughout the product’s lifecycle. Heavy metals and hazardous chemicals contained in electronic products not only pose a risk to workers in the manufacturing process, but they can also create exposure risks for end-users and recyclers, as well as environmental contamination of our air, soil, and water at the end of their life if they are not properly disposed.

Workers involved in the manufacturing of electronic products can risk exposure to chemicals like beryllium, frequently used in battery contacts, and electronic connectors, which is a known carcinogen whose fumes and airborne particles pose lung cancer and other health risks. Both workers and end-users of electronics risk exposure to chlorinated and brominated flame retardants, substances used to inhibit the spread of fire in indoor products. These chemicals are highly persistent and bioaccumulative and are not only found in electronic products but also in other everyday products. They can migrate out of consumer materials and contaminate the indoor dust found in our homes, cars, and offices. Exposure can lead to impaired brain functioning and can interfere with hormonal systems.

Recyclers risk exposure to cadmium and lead, chemicals that were used in old cathode ray tubes (CRT) found in computer and television monitors, release toxic fumes during incineration, crushing, and smelting processes. CRTs in unmanaged landfills can leach these chemicals into our soil and water, creating a toxic exposure risk to humans, animals, and plants. Similarly, chemicals such as hexavalent chromium, a corrosion inhibitor on circuit boards, and mercury, can cause kidney and liver damage, as well as an impairment to the brain and nervous system development. Lastly, plastics made with chlorine and fluorine release dioxins and furans when burned as part of disposal; and bioaccumulative chemicals can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, and alter hormone balance.

Through advances in technical specifications and environmental awareness, alternative chemicals have been and continue to be created for use throughout the electronic product lifecycle. CRT televisions are no longer manufactured, and the use of mercury-free light-emitting diodes have become the norm in the production of flat panel displays. Because of regulations like the European Union’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, and purchasers’ use of the EPEAT ecolabel, the industry is identifying and implementing safer alternatives to chemicals of concern.