Laptops and Smartphones Are Chemical Reactors

Smartphones and laptops are chemical warehouses. We need to do better managing the dangerous chemicals that emit all sorts of toxins.

“One of the best places for environmental chemists to look for previously unknown chemical pollutants is not in ‘the environment’ or ‘nature’ but in the residues of previously manufactured commodities, particularly discarded electronics,” scientist Josh Lepawsky has stated.

“It can be somewhat amazing to learn that we have very little understanding of the galaxy of chemicals that all of our daily products that are surrounding us in our homes, are made of,” Josh explained to me in our podcast. “There are quite literally millions of different chemicals available for industrial use, but only in the order of thousands have ever been tested for their toxicity. Environmental toxicologists, in looking for new toxins of concern, have found a previously unknown chemical toxicant, not in some unexplored cave, but in the dust from electronic recycling facilities.

Related Article: Enormous, Toxic Waste in Digital Design

Toxicity Abounds in Chemical Galaxy

“There are so many chemicals available for industrial use that it completely exceeds all of the testing capacity on Earth to keep up with the number of new chemicals. There is literally no way to fully know the extent of the chemical galaxy that we find ourselves increasingly living in.”

It is hard to think that our smartphones and laptops are chemical warehouses and that when they become e-waste (as most of them will), they can act like chemical factories, producing new forms of dangerous chemicals and, like mini decaying nuclear reactors, emitting all sorts of toxins.

“Nuclear waste has a spectacular imagining that goes with it, in part because of the spectacular accidents that have occurred,” Josh states. “That goes some way to explain why we see nuclear waste as somehow special. But you’re exactly right. It’s important for us to understand that many, many of the mundane, everyday objects that are part of so many of our lives (TVs, phones, etc.) are made from materials that from a geological point of view are effectively permanent.”

According to Josh, they will last long, long after anything recognizable as contemporary society, perhaps even humans as a species, he adds.


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