Electronics Dumping Ground

It is easy to dump on China's tainted milk, toxic toys, and poison pet food, ignoring how the United States makes China its personal PC dump.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office found virtually no enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency on exports of used electronics to developing countries that often dismantle them in extremely unsafe operations. The GAO had agents pose as buyers of broken cathode-ray tube television and computer monitors. It found that dozens of electronics recyclers in the United States were willing to export "broken, untested or nonworking" CRTs to developing nations like China, India, and Indonesia and regions like Western Africa. CRTs have enough lead in them to be "especially harmful to humans and the environment" if handled improperly.

The GAO said, "EPA records show that none of the recyclers willing to sell to us had filed proper notifications of their intent to export CRTs for recycling as is required . . . Some of these seemingly noncompliant companies actively cultivate an environmentally responsible public image; at least three of them held Earth Day 2008 electronics recycling events."

In addition, federal rules allow for exporting just about any other non-CRT products, "such as computers, printers and cell phones," even though "they can be mismanaged overseas and can cause serious health and environmental problems."

The problems are pretty obvious. There is plenty of evidence from the United Nations environment program that several countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, which do not have either landfill capacity or serious regulations, are disassembling CRT's by hand by "primitive means." In China, open-air burning and acid baths to recover metals from electronic products "are commonplace," and the residual waste soaks into the ground and water.

Indonesia reportedly has a special zone that is exempt from any government regulation, where electronic waste is dismantled, crushed, and melted. In Cambodia, broken electronics often end up in ordinary municipal dumps where adults and children scavenge for scrap for as little as $1 a day. In India, thousands of workers, including children break apart used electronics with their hands, melt them with acid baths, and openly burn wires and plastic casings to get at gold, copper, and other metals.

"EPA has done little to determine the extent of noncompliance with the rule and even less to deter such noncompliance," the GAO said.

In one case, the GAO said, "A representative of an electronics-recycling company in Washington State told us that all of its CRT monitors are sent to its shredding facility in Oregon. A sales associate at the company, however, offered to sell four containers of CRT monitors (approximately 3,200 units) in April 2008 and another 20 containers (approximately 16,000 units) in June 2008 to our fictitious broker in Hong Kong."

The report said, "In at least one case, EPA chose not to physically inspect and detain a container that was intercepted and returned to the United States by Hong Kong, even though EPA acknowledged that the container likely contained broken CRTs."

The GAO report was only part of a particularly bad week for the agency that the Bush administration has defanged during its two terms. In a report the day before, the GAO found that the EPA is barely using its advisory committee on children's health to form policy around contaminants such as lead paint and air pollution.

"EPA has largely disregarded key recommendations," the report said, ". . .including the need for EPA to eliminate environmental health disparities among low-income and minority children, strengthen the national approach to regulating toxic chemicals and provide necessary leadership and infrastructure to protect children's health."

Overall, the GAO said, the EPA and Health and Human Services "no longer have a high-level infrastructure or mandate to coordinate federal strategies for children's environmental health and safety." Such coordination ironically could have aided in the recall of toxic toys from China. From ignoring toxic electronics picked through by children abroad, to disregarding the pollutants that give children asthma at home, the EPA is the empty protection agency.

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