Electronic Waste Memento

Electronic Waste Memento
Oladele A. Ogunseitan University of California Presidential Chair
Professor of Population Health and Disease Prevention
Co-Director, World Institute for Sustainable Development of Materials (WISDOM) Irvine, CA 92697

Email: Oladele.Ogunseitan@uci.edu


      Convergent innovations in electronic and brain circuitries are revolutionizing the understanding of brain functions and opportunities to repair brain damage. The ongoing revolution in neuroelectronics relies on integration of advances in materials sciences, engineering, and medicine, and the products generated at the intersection of these disciplines have spurred and impressive industry1,2. However, the dark side of the electronic industry is the generation of toxic electronic waste (e-waste) which may contribute to the pathology for which the solutions require behavioral, surgical, and ironically, neuroelectronic interventions to repair brain functions. The toxic threats posed by exposure to e-waste is particularly burdensome for people working to manage the end-of-life of electronic products.
       For more than three decades, e-waste has been recognized as the fastest growing category of hazardous waste worldwide and attempts to integrate e-waste into a circular econom4y has faced several impediments3,4. In 2021, the World Health Organization estimated that, globally, approximately 12.5 million women and 18 million children work in the waste sector with little or no protection against toxic exposures5,6. Numerous research studies have documented the linkage of e-waste exposure and illness including adverse pregnancy outcomes7,8. Early studies on the potential adverse impacts of e-waste management on human health and environmental quality focused on the ubiquitous use of tin-lead (Sn-Pb) solder in printed wiring boards (PWB), and the notoriety of Pb as a potent neurotoxicant9,10. Initial resistance of the electronics manufacturing industry to find alternatives to the use of Pb in electronic products eventually succumbed to pressure from policy makers, advocates, and the intensity of competing research to find safer alternatives, although some industries clung to exemptions to lead-free regulations on the basis of preventing infrastructure accidents in high-risk situation11. Evidence gathered through longitudinal studies of the e-waste stream suggests that the phase-out of Pb from electronics through a combination of technical innovation and regulatory incentives is largely a success story12,13. However, the piecemeal strategy of phasing-out one neurotoxicant at a time without developing strategies for preventing human exposure to e-waste is inefficient because current versions of electronic products are manufactured with a bewildering array of chemicals of concern, including lithium, mercury, cadmium, nickel, rare earth elements, and organic chemicals which mimic hormones that modulate neurodevelopment and brain function (Figure 1)14,15.
      The unique properties of mercury as a fluid metal under ambient conditions led to its widespread use in electronic products, particularly in thermostats and fluorescent lighting systems in some flat panel displays. Beginning in 2021, mercury is being phased out of some of these electronic use, but the neurotoxic metal will likely continue to be present in e-waste streams for at least the next decade, during which many children and women will be exposed.
Mercury is perhaps the only chemical element to be a singular subject of a United Nations convention, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, and it is the only element named in the United States’ reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act16. Mercury is also among the metals that were once embraced by the medical establishment as a medication, used to control pathogenic microbial infections, until research revealed overwhelming evidence of its neurotoxic and neurodevelopmental effects. Yet there remains uncertainty about political commitment to eliminate its anthropogenic sources17.
Lithium is another metal with medicinal uses that is also abundant in e-waste. Lithium has become indispensable in the manufacture of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The demand for lithium and cobalt has intensified over the past decade because of the need to power electric vehicles with such batteries. However, the recovery and reuse of these metals from e-waste has not advanced at the levels needed to reduce demand for mining operations that pollute the environment, use child labor, or otherwise contribute to illness in populations18. For example, a recent study of people inhabiting the proximity of an e-waste processing facility showed high blood levels of cobalt, mercury, nickel, and stannum which correlated to triggers of disruption of the blood-brain barrier19. Recently, attention of public and planetary health researchers is shifting to understudied hormone mimics present in newer models of electronic products as they begin to enter the waste stream. e-waste stream. A cross-sectional study of residents in an e- waste processing site revealed high concentrations of rare earth elements including lanthanum and cerium in the blood of exposed individuals which was detrimental to the hypothalamic- pituitary-thyroid axis20.
       Solutions to the e-waste problem demand new ways of thinking about the costs of technological innovation across many disciplines and professions. Neuroscience and neurosurgery have benefitted substantially from the electronics revolution, and the intersection of these disciplines and planetary health may not be immediately apparent, but the material linkages are inescapable. However, it is important that those who benefit from the revolution also join the movement toward better stewardship against the proliferation of e-waste toxicants. The prevention of risk factors which are associated with neurodevelopment and brain function is critical for curbing the increasing burden of neurological diseases. Electronic waste is a major contributor of these risk factors in marginalized sectors of societies worldwide, but socio- economic affluence does not guarantee immunity to these risk factors.


The author is grateful for support provided by the University of California Presidential Endowment and by the World Institute for Sustainable Development of Materials (WISDOM). He serves as unpaid Co-Chair of Apple Inc., Green Chemistry Advisory Board.


1 Rinklin, P. and Wolfrum, B., 2021. Recent developments and future perspectives on neuroelectronic devices. Neuroforum, 27(4), pp.213-224. https://doi.org/10.1515/nf-2021-0019
2 Zhao, Z., Cea, C., Gelinas, J.N. and Khodagholy, D., 2021. Responsive manipulation of neural circuit pathology by fully implantable, front-end multiplexed embedded
neuroelectronics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(20). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.181348698.
3 Ogunseitan, O.A., Schoenung, J.M., Saphores, J.D.M. and Shapiro, A.A., 2009. The electronics revolution: from e-wonderland to e-wasteland. Science, 326(5953), pp.670-671. DOI: 10.1126/science.1176929.
4 Awasthi, A.K., Li, J., Koh, L. and Ogunseitan, O.A., 2019. Circular economy and electronic waste. Nature Electronics, 2(3), pp.86-89. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41928-019-0225-2.
5 World Health Organization, 2021. Children and digital dumpsites: e-waste exposure and child
health. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/341718/9789240023901-eng.pdf.
6 Hibbert, K. and Ogunseitan, O.A., 2014. Risks of toxic ash from artisanal mining of discarded cellphones. Journal of hazardous materials, 278, pp.1-7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhazmat.2014.05.089
7 Singh, N., Ogunseitan, O.A. and Tang, Y., 2021. Systematic review of pregnancy and neonatal health outcomes associated with exposure to e-waste disposal. Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology, 51(20), pp.2424-2448. https://doi.org/10.1080/10643389.2020.1788913.
8 Parvez, S.M., Jahan, F., Brune, M.N., Gorman, J.F., Rahman, M.J., Carpenter, D., Islam, Z., Rahman, M., Aich, N., Knibbs, L.D. and Sly, P.D., 2021. Health consequences of exposure to e-waste: an updated systematic review. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), pp.e905-e920. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00263-1
9 Schoenung, J.M., Ogunseitan, O.A., Saphores, J.D.M. and Shapiro, A.A., 2004. Adopting lead‐
free electronics: policy differences and knowledge gaps. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 8(4), pp.59-85. https://doi.org/10.1162/1088198043630496.
10 Chan, T.J., Gutierrez, C. and Ogunseitan, O.A., 2015. Metallic burden of deciduous teeth and childhood behavioral deficits. International journal of environmental research and public health, 12(6), pp.6771-6787. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph120606771
11 Shapiro, A.A., Bonner, J.K., Ogunseitan, O.A., Saphores, J.D. and Schoenung, J.M., 2006. Implications of Pb-free microelectronics assembly in aerospace applications. IEEE Transactions on components and packaging technologies, 29(1), pp.60-70. doi: 10.1109/TCAPT.2005.850514.
12 Chen, S., Wang, R., Wang, J., Shu, J., Chen, M. and Ogunseitan, O.A., 2021. Comparative effectiveness of technical and regulatory innovations to reduce the burden of electronic waste. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 167, p.105387. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2020.105387.
13 Ogunseitan, O.A., 2013. The Basel Convention and e-waste: translation of scientific uncertainty to protective policy. The lancet global health, 1(6), pp.e313-e314. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2214-109X(13)70110-4
14 Chen, A., Dietrich, K.N., Huo, X. and Ho, S.M., 2011. Developmental neurotoxicants in e- waste: an emerging health concern. Environmental health perspectives, 119(4), pp.431-438. https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/abs/10.1289/ehp.1002452
15 Zhu, X., Li, Z., Guo, C., Wang, Z., Wang, Z., Li, X., Qian, Y. and Wei, Y., 2022. Risk of neurodegeneration among residents of electronic waste recycling areas. Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, 230, p.113132. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoenv.2021.113132
16 Ogunseitan, O.A., 2017. Mercury Safety Reform in the 21st Century: Advancing the New Framework for Toxic Substances Control. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 59(4), pp.4-13. https://doi.org/10.1080/00139157.2017.1325299
17 Ogunseitan, O.A., 2017. Pollution: US coal plans flout mercury convention. Nature, 548(7669), pp.523-524. https://www.nature.com/articles/548523a.pdf?origin=ppub.
18 Kang, D.H.P., Chen, M. and Ogunseitan, O.A., 2013. Potential environmental and human
health impacts of rechargeable lithium batteries in electronic waste. Environmental science & technology, 47(10), pp.5495-5503. https://doi.org/10.1021/es400614y.
19 Li, Z., Wang, Z., Xue, K., Wang, Z., Guo, C., Qian, Y., Li, X. and Wei, Y., 2021. High concentration of blood cobalt is associated with the impairment of blood-brain barrier permeability. Chemosphere, 273, p.129579. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2021.129579
20 Guo, C., Wei, Y., Yan, L., Li, Z., Qian, Y., Liu, H., Li, Z., Li, X., Wang, Z. and Wang, J., 2020. Rare earth elements exposure and the alteration of the hormones in the hypothalamic- pituitary-thyroid (HPT) axis of the residents in an e-waste site: A cross-sectional study. Chemosphere, 252, p.126488. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2020.126488.

Figure 1. Toxic chemicals used to manufacture electronic products end up in electronic waste polluting the environment and contributing to population burden of disease, including neurological diseases. Improved electronic stewardship across all benefitting sectors and professions will reduce the generation of e-waste.

July 2024