Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.
About ten miles northwest of Merced, amid the dairy farms and orchards of California’s San Joaquin Valley, sits the Atwater Federal Penitentiary, its tower and low-slung buildings the same mustard yellow as the dry fields that stretch out beyond the chain-link fence and concertina wire toward the Sierra Nevadas. Inside this maximum-security prison, inmates smash computer monitors with hammers, releasing dust that contains lead, cadmium, barium and other toxic substances. These inmates are employed by the electronics recycling division of Federal Prison Industries (better known as UNICOR). With sales that have nearly tripled since 2002, electronics recycling is UNICOR’s fastest-growing business. But according to reports from prisons where this work is being done and interviews with former inmates employed by UNICOR, it’s taking place under conditions that pose serious hazards to prison staff and inmates–and, ultimately, to the rest of America and the world.
In late 2004 Leroy Smith, Atwater’s former safety manager, filed a formal complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. According to Smith, workers at Atwater’s UNICOR facility are routinely exposed to dust from heavy metals. They were eating lunch in an area contaminated by lead, barium, beryllium and cadmium, he says, and using safety equipment that doesn’t meet OSHA standards. Neither staff nor inmates were properly informed about the hazards, says Smith, who has more than a decade of experience with the Bureau of Prisons. After his superiors sent OSHA a report that downplayed and denied the problems, Smith sought whistleblower protection. He’s now on paid leave while his lawsuit works its way through the Justice Department.
With $10 million of revenue in 2004, seven prison facilities and about 1,000 inmate employees who last year processed nearly 44 million pounds of electronic equipment, UNICOR is one of the country’s largest electronics recyclers. There are about 400 electronics recyclers in the United States–a burgeoning industry that is vital to solving one of the information age’s peskiest problems. Americans own more than 2 billion pieces of high-tech consumer electronics. With some 5 to 7 million tons of this stuff becoming obsolete each year, e-waste is now the fastest-growing part of the US municipal waste stream. It’s the most challenging mass-produced trash we’ve ever had to deal with.
The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in computer and television monitors contain lead, a neurotoxin, as do printed circuit boards. A typical desktop computer may contain up to eight pounds of lead. Mercury, another neurotoxin, is used in flat-panel display screens. Monitors contain cadmium, a known carcinogen. Circuit boards and exteriors use plastics containing flame retardants documented as disrupting thyroid hormone function and acting as neurotoxins in animals.
When high-tech equipment is intact, these substances are mostly harmless. But when digital devices are physically damaged–almost inevitable during disposal–the toxins emerge. By 2001 an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report estimated that discarded electronics accounted for 70 percent of the heavy metals and 40 percent of the lead in US landfills. Synthetic chemicals used in electronics have been found in people, animals, food and household dust all around the world.