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.

Given the hazards posed by landfilling and incinerating high-tech electronics, the safest way to dispose of them is to separate their materials, which can then be reprocessed as feedstock for new products. But these materials are tightly packed, largely unlabeled and of variable design, making that separation process both expensive and labor intensive.

That’s where UNICOR comes in. The United States–unlike the European Union and several other countries, including Japan–has no national laws requiring electronics recycling. Yet over the past few years, individual states and local governments have begun enacting legislation to keep high-tech trash out of their landfills. At the same time, a growing number of businesses and organizations, concerned about the liabilities posed by dumping old computers, are opting to have equipment recycled. To save money many are sending equipment to UNICOR.

“UNICOR’s program is labor intensive, so capital machinery and equipment expenses are minimized, this helps keep prices low,” says a company brochure. With a captive workforce UNICOR’s electronics recycling program can afford to be labor intensive. Because it is run by the Bureau of Prisons, UNICOR does not have to pay minimum wages–recent wages were $0.23 to $1.15 an hour–or provide benefits. Though UNICOR is not taxpayer supported, its pay scale would not be possible without taxpayer support of the inmates.

The savings payoff for UNICOR: In 2004 UNICOR’s Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, prison facility won a contract from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection with a price one-quarter of that bid by private-sector recyclers. “I welcome the competition, but let’s level the playing field,” says Andy Niles of Scientific Recycling in Holmen, Wisconsin. Niles says he had to lay off about one-quarter of his staff after losing business to his state’s prison industry.

“Busting up monitors exposes you to a lot more risk. But broken monitors saves on shipping costs,” says Greg Sampson of Earth Protection Services, another private recycler. “Broken, you can fit about 100 into a carton, whereas only thirty-five or so will fit if they’re intact. We don’t break ours up.” Neither do other private recyclers I contacted. “It’s more expensive, but we pack them in lined boxes that are shipped with a manifest indicating hazardous material contents, and we use special machines to deactivate CRTs,” explains Scott Sodenkamp, operations manager at the Noranda Recycling plant in Roseville, California. At Atwater, Leroy Smith told me, broken CRTs are packed in cardboard cartons and sealed with plastic wrap.

UNICOR doesn’t just save money by busting up monitors and paying prison wages. Instead of investing in state-of-the-art disassembly equipment and durable safety gear, UNICOR reportedly distributed ball-peen hammers and cloth gloves to inmates working at Atwater. “The gloves ripped easily and there were lots of bad scratches and cuts,” a former Atwater UNICOR worker told me. Staff and inmates who worked at UNICOR’s Elkton, Ohio, and Texarkana, Texas, operations have similar accounts of broken glass, noxious dust and injuries resulting from inadequate tools.

UNICOR declined my request to visit the Atwater facility. But an OSHA inspector who toured it in late 2004 confirmed many of the inmates’ complaints: “While conducting sampling, I observed, and numerous workers reported, the improper use of tools and techniques due to the lack of appropriate tools to more safely dismantle monitors.”

“We were given light-particle dust masks and the stuff would get in behind them,” the former Atwater inmate told me. “In the glass-breaking room, guys would be pulling junk out of their hair and eyebrows. We were coughing up and blowing out all sorts of nasty stuff, and open wounds weren’t healing.” The coveralls inmates wore on the job–kept on during breaks and meals–would come back from laundering with glass and metal dust in rolled cuffs, he says. Work boots were worn outside the factory, too, potentially contaminating other areas of the prison–something OSHA regulations are designed to avoid. Prison staff, say Smith and others, wear regular uniforms and shoes in the factory, allowing contaminated dust to be transferred to their cars, homes and families.

In 2002, air samples taken at Atwater found lead levels twice OSHA’s permissible exposure level, and cadmium ten times the OSHA standard. Wipe samples found lead, cadmium and beryllium (which causes severe lung disease) on work surfaces and inmates’ skin. Blood and urine testing found barium, cadmium and lead, some at elevated levels.

UNICOR’s computer disassembly process releases so much lead, in fact, that its dust qualifies as hazardous waste. Smith and former staff at UNICOR’s Elkton, Ohio, facility say this waste has been improperly handled. “Prison staff were removing the filters that collect the dust from the glass-breaking without wearing respirators, and putting these filters in the general prison trash,” says Smith, who showed me photographs of worktables covered with thick layers of pale gray dust.

Because UNICOR works behind bars, it has another advantage over its competitors: It doesn’t have to be prepared for unannounced OSHA inspections. And even though some factories opened in 1997, there were no OSHA inspections until 2004. The air tests in late 2004 found lead, barium and cadmium at Atwater–but below the levels at which OSHA requires the use of safety equipment. These test samples, however, were not taken around inmates “involved in the deliberate breaking of computer monitors,” says the OSHA report. Even so, barium, beryllium, cadmium and lead were found on work surfaces; barium, cadmium and lead were found in the workers’ dining area, creating the potential for accidental ingestion. But none of that violates OSHA standards. As the OSHA inspector noted, there are actually “no standards or regulatory levels for these metals on surfaces.”

How toxic is the dust? Long-term exposure to low levels of cadmium damages kidneys and can lead to lung disease. Workers exposed to the levels of lead found in Atwater’s air in 2002 would eventually have elevated blood lead levels–not enough to cause acute lead poisoning but plenty to cause kidney or neurological damage, according to leading environmental and occupational health scientists. “If a workplace has enough lead to fall near the OSHA standards, that would be enough to come home and pose a risk to children,” says Howard Hu, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Inhalation exposure is the most dangerous in terms of getting lead into the body, Hu says. OSHA standards–and those now set by the EPA–likely allow far higher exposure than is truly safe. In fact, says Dr. Bruce Lanphear, director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, “there is no safe level.”

Despite the recent surge of concern about data security, most people know little about where discarded digital equipment ends up. Great quantities of e-waste sent to domestic recyclers end up overseas–in China, Africa, Southeast and South Asia, and other developing regions–where much of it is processed cheaply, under unsafe and environmentally unsound conditions. To avoid this, many recyclers and their clients demand rigorous documentation of the downstream flow of dismantled equipment.

“Environmental stewardship and social responsibility are critical issues for our clients,” says Robert Houghton of Redemtech, which recycles electronics for Fortune 500 companies. Redemtech considered working with UNICOR, Houghton told me, but chose not to because UNICOR could not provide the downstream accountability Redemtech’s customers required.

UNICOR says that no material it recycles will be landfilled or exported for dumping. UNICOR’s no-export policy prohibits shipping electronic waste to any country barred by the US government from receiving US products. These countries, UNICOR told me, are Cuba, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Sudan and Syria. But that leaves many countries to choose from, since US laws only prohibit exporting hazardous material destined for disposal–rather than recycling–or when it involves transfer of “sensitive” technology. “It’s absolutely legal to send this stuff to Pakistan,” says Houghton.

Much of what UNICOR recycles comes from the federal government, which buys about 7 percent of the world’s computers and disposes of at least half a million each year. In 2002 the Defense Department sent some 17 million pounds of used electronics to UNICOR for recycling. UNICOR’s website also lists several universities as clients. But some counted as customers no longer are–among them the University of Colorado, which wanted better documentation than UNICOR provided. Same with Johns Hopkins. “Using prison labor was not looked at very favorably,” says a university employee who asked not to be named.

The United States is the only industrialized nation that uses prison labor for electronics recycling. “We can do without it, but are we willing to do without it?” asks Craig Lorch, whose company, Total Reclaim, is among the thirty or more that have pledged not to use prison labor. Until environmental and social benefits are given priority over the bottom line, UNICOR’s low-cost option will continue to be used by the government and many others. But relying on workers who are not paid a living wage, and who work in unhealthy and environmentally unsound conditions, displaces rather than solves the e-waste problem. The long-term environmental costs cannot even be calculated. As long as the United States does not require transparency and accountability from recyclers, it will be impossible to know how these toxic materials are treated, or where they go.