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September 22, 2008 | by  | in Games |
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Beware the hidden dangers of computers

Computers are wonderful things. They entertain you via videos on YouTube, educate you through Wikipedia (though never ‘officially’), allow you to keep in touch with friends on Facebook (or Bebo, MySpace, or one of the other thousands of social networking sites), they spellcheck your work and give grammar advice, and mean everyone can understand your writing no matter how messy your handwriting is. Sure, sometimes they refuse to obey you and make you want to throw them off a high building, but you never do because deep down, you know you’d be lost without it. Yet despite the amazing benefit of computers they are not as innocent as they look.

The mass of metals, plastics and chemicals that make up your ‘friendly’ computers combine to form one dangerous blend of electronic wonder. Not dangerous in the sense that it will jump up and stab you to death, but dangerous in a slow and sneaky way. It’s the type of dangerous that slowly poisons you without you noticing, like a clever cook putting small amounts of lead in your soup. In fact on the Ministry for the Environment’s list of types of wastes computers are classified as a ‘special’ waste, meaning toxic but in a way that’s hard to define (in fact they’re listed right beside explosives, which are dangerous in the “Oh my god, I no longer have a hand,” kind of way).

So why do computers deserve to be labelled in this way? Well anything that could potentially give you cancer or give you brain damage is hardly ‘safe’. In fact toxic substances in computers can be 30% of its total weight.

First of there are Brominated Flame Retardants put in most of the plastics used in computers. Without them computers could well become dangerous in the “Oh my god, I was just playing solitaire and now my house is on fire,” way. But they aren’t just a fire fighting hero; some are linked with cancer, reproductive damage, and permanent disturbance to development and the hormonal system. Most worryingly it’s released from plastics through use. In other words the dust in most homes contains BFRs, en route from a product like a computer to your blood stream. Having a computer that doesn’t spontaneously burst into flames is undoubtedly a good thing, but so is being sure the dust in your house doesn’t give you cancer.

The other dangerous components of computers are even more subtle. They won’t affect you while you’re using it; it’s when you dispose of the computer that they release their arsenal. The computer monitor is a prime example. The CRT screens, i.e. the ones that aren’t flashy, contain lead; and the new flat screens, i.e. the new flashy ones, contain mercury. Both are metals that have long had a bad reputation. They are known to cause brain damage in children along with a host of other suspect side-effects.

So why does this matter if they can’t harm you directly from your computer? These metals build up in the environment when disposed of, leak into the water systems and then are absorbed into the animals that use them. Of course lead in a secure landfill with all the mod cons, like, thrills of thrills, a lining to prevent leakage, is not as dangerous as a lead pipe being used to bash your head in. But if 1000 computers are thrown out each year in one New Zealand landfill, each containing 1.6 kg of lead, that is 1600 kgs of lead. That is an awful lot of toxic material hanging round and it will most likely last longer than the lining keeping it in.

There are a host of other suspect materials used in computers but most are in miniscule amounts. Still is any amount of a toxic material, such as cadmium that is a carcinogen and causes kidney damage, miniscule enough?

In particular the problem with putting toxic substances into a computer, no matter how useful they are, is what’s put in must come out. Sometimes computers make it to secure landfills where at least there is a system in place. In other cases computers are just dumped or end up being shipped to developing countries where burning of waste is a common practise and no infrastructure exists to deal with the pollution. Recycling is also limited by the presence of these toxic substances.

But so what if computers are box of toxic substances just waiting to escape, nobody is going to give up their right to Google and YouTube. The good news is that you don’t have to. Slowly these materials are being replaced to create models that won’t give you cancer when you’re not looking.

However there is still improvement needed and consumer demand is key. Substituting these materials out of computers makes no difference to performance or cost, it just makes all the difference to the health of the world. And it means you can continue to use Wikipedia or Bebo stalk to your heart’s content without worry.

For more information on the issues in this column go to:

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