PBS Premiere: Oct. 10, 2006Check the broadcast schedule »

Wasting Away: Interview with Elizabeth Grossman

POV: In Maquilapolis: City of Factories, we see factory workers in Tijuana suffer through health problems due to the air- and water-borne toxins released from their workplaces. What sorts of toxins and pollutants are found in these workplaces?

Elizabeth GrossmanElizabeth Grossman:The women whose stories are told in Maquilapolis work primarily in electronics factories, assembling televisions, batteries, telephones, power cords, and medical equipment among other products. Assembling these components would mean that lead, numerous plastics, adhesives, caustic chemicals like sodium and potassium hydroxide, and metals -- including copper, iron, zinc, possibly also cadmium, nickel, and lithium, even mercury -- are among the materials these workers are exposed to routinely.

High Teh TrashElizabeth Grossman is the author of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health (Island Press, 2006).

Lead is used in solder and in the cathode ray tubes of TV and computer screens. Lead is highly toxic to the nervous system, blood cells and kidneys, and also interferes with how the body processes calcium and vitamin D. Recent research has concluded that virtually no level of lead is safe for children -- and lead dust is easily transported from workplace to home unless work clothes, including shoes, are thoroughly cleaned.

The plastics in these electronics likely contain brominated flame retardants -- these accumulate in fat tissue and interfere with the endocrine system and lead to neurological problems. The adhesives, strong epoxies -- the pastes referred to in the film -- likely contain carbon monoxide and aldehydes (these are highly toxic compounds also used in pesticides). These adhesives are known to cause allergies and skin problems, including eczema, as well as eye and respiratory problems. Some of the health problems these women report are similar to those reported by workers in China wh dismantle electronics under environmentally unsound conditions.

car batteriesLess than 10 years after NAFTA, the maquiladoras of Mexico are already closing down as corporations begin to depart for even cheaper labor in Asia, leaving behind decrepit factory sites, slag heaps of toxic material (like the above pile of batteries) and endemic unemployment.

If the plastics used are heated or melted in any part of the assembly process (or disposal) they can easily release chemicals with adverse health impacts -- that would include skin and respiratory problems. The chemicals used in batteries can cause a whole host of health problems, including skin irritations and burns. Any number of these chemicals -- including those washing out of the abandoned factory waste site -- may also be causing reproductive problems and birth defects.

One of the big concerns raised by the film is the fact that these women are potentially exposed to toxins not just in the workplace but also at ho--me and in their communities -- and that they may be bringing some of the toxins home to their children. And the conditions in which most of them live make it virtually impossible to remove themselves from any polluted air or water that might be present.

POV: Would you say that the level of toxins found there is in line with what's to be expected in the manufacturing process, say, here in the U.S., or would you guess that it's much worse in Mexico?

Grossman: Most of the TVs destined for the U.S. market are assembled in Mexico and Asia. So the fact is that much of the manufacturing of the kind portrayed in the film is not taking place in the U.S. -- which means that more workers in Mexico and other countries are now being exposed to these toxics than in the U.S.

POV: When it comes to the environment and manufacturing, you seldom hear about case studies with happy endings. Are you aware of any electronics or appliance manufacturers that have taken significant and imitated steps -- either in the U.S. or abroad -- to curb the toxicity of their products, improve working conditions and limit environmental damage?

The women arrive for work in the factory. The colors of their coats denote their rank in the management.

Grossman: Actually, electronics manufacturers -- in response to legislation enacted in Europe and concern from consumers, scientists and others -- are now reducing the number of toxic and hazardous materials used in their products. As of this year, any electronics sold in the European Union are subject to a law known as the RoHS Directive that restricts the use of lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and certain flame retardants in these products. So given the global market for electronics, these standards are essentially becoming worldwide standards. All the major electronics manufacturers are meeting these standards for most of their products. This won't solve historic problems like those documented in the film -- or by any means all of the workplace toxic issues these women deal with -- but it should begin to improve conditions going forward.

Major manufacturers are also under increasing public scrutiny to improve environmental performance and workplace health and safety. This is due in part to an increased demand for what's called transparency throughout their supply chains. Being considered a bad global citizen or poor steward of the environment is not good for business. However, making sure that reality and perception coincide, and enforcing regulations, requires oversight and diligence. And that is far from consistent. Unless there are personnel dedicated to what are called "downstream environmental audits," which involve frequent site visits, it's hard to know exactly what is happening at a plant hundreds or thousands of miles from U.S. headquarters.

POV: There's a perception that environmental regulations are more difficult to enforce in third-world countries. And there's certainly a discrepancy in the written laws themselves. How much of a factor do you think this discrepancy plays when a company decides where to set up a manufacturing plant? Is there such a thing as a "green" manufacturing country with strict manufacturing laws?

From top: Lourdes points out the rash she gets on her arms and stands by the polluted river that runs through her town.

Grossman: Environmental regulations are hard to enforce everywhere. Sadly, the examples of lack of enforcement in the U.S. are numerous and ongoing. U.S. electronics manufacturers typically say they run their overseas plants under the same condition sin which they run those at home, but when it comes to factories run by other companies that supply parts or that are subcontractors, it's harder to account for all conditions. And certainly, for reasons of distance and economics, it is much harder to enforce regulations in countries like Mexico, China or Indonesia. China, for example, has some strong laws on the books, but enforcement is inconsistent due in part to the country's size and also to corruption.

In developing countries where labor costs are low, other costs are also lower -- including those for waste disposal. It's unlikely that a major manufacturer will admit to choosing a location because of lax enforcement of environmental laws; they will cite costs. A country (or state) that has the money to pay for enforcement is probably a more expensive place to do business. And in many developing countries the systems and infrastructure to deal with hazardous waste and enforce environmental laws are lacking or severely under funded.

A maquiladora worker does her part on the television production line.

I'm not sure which country would qualify as the "greenest." Northern Europe -- Germany and Scandinavia -- has been a leader in pushing for restrictions on hazardous materials and toxics in manufactured products, and also in also pushing for producer responsibility and recycling of obsolete products. Japan, by virtue of its small size and dense population, is a leader in domestic recycling and waste reduction. Overall, I'd say the leadership on reducing the adverse environmental impacts of manufactured products and reducing packaging and product waste is coming from Europe and to some extent Japan. The U.S. is simply not a leader in these areas.

On the other hand, the U.S. has high labor and workplace safety standards. But we are also very slow -- appallingly slow -- to regulate and take out of use chemicals used in manufacturing that are documented to have adverse health and environmental effects. Europe has taken a much more precautionary approach than we have.

POV: Manufacturing is a vertical process, and a single finished product can be comprised from many individual components assembled all around the world. This makes it difficult to discern whether or not that dishwasher or TV you just bought is "environmentally sound." Even for a dedicated and conscientious consumer, it's a daunting task to do the research. Where does one begin? What should a responsible consumer be looking for when purchasing electronics and appliances?

Grossman: This is hard. One place to begin -- and I'm sure manufacturers and other businesspeople reading this may not like this answer -- is with some of the "report cards" compiled by environmental and consumer advocate organizations including Greenpeace International, the Computer TakeBack Campaign and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. They've rated electronics manufacturers on environmental performance in a number of areas, but these apply almost entirely to IT equipment, not household appliances.

Of interest about toxics and electronics production:
» The RoHS Directive stands for "the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment." Read more about this new European Union regulation.
» Grist magazine: WEEE are the World
Find out more about how new E.U. environmental standards are changing the global marketplace. (Sept. 2005)

You can also consult the materials sections of manufacturers websites -- generally found under the heading of "environment," (for example, put "Company Name, environment" into your search engine) -- but that information is not included with the product itself, and also won't tell you anything about manufacturing conditions.

In Europe there are what are called "eco-labels" -- including Blue Angel, Nordic Swan, TCO -- that cover a broad range of appliances, but you'd have to do some conscientious research to find out if all those features were in equivalent products sold in the U.S. Here we have the "Energy Star" program, which rates energy efficiency and numerous labeling programs for food and personal care products but the U.S. doesn't really have any nationwide third-party program to certify whether or not your new cell phone, MP3 player or computer is environmentally sound.

POV: What are the most toxic materials? What are the most dangerous electronics to produce or to dispose of?

Grossman: Where TVs and computers are concerned, the most toxic component to dispose of is the monitor or screen unit, what's called the cathode ray tube or CRT for short. The glass contains lead, barium, cadmium and phosphorus, and the funnel-shaped part behind the screen also contains significant amounts of lead. A dumpster or truck load of CRTs is so toxic it qualifies as hazardous waste. If broken or crushed, CRTs release dust containing these heavy metals that can easily be inhaled, ingested or transported.

Flat screens are beginning to overtake CRTs in new computer and TV production, but this also means that a great many obsolete CRTs will be entering the waste stream -- especially when digital, high-definition TV becomes the standard. Right now the U.S. has no national regulation on CRT disposal -- so in most places you can still put anything short of 220 pounds a month into the trash. The EPA estimates that about 40 percent of the lead found in U.S. landfills comes from discarded electronics.

Based on the scores of scientific papers I've read about brominated flame retardants, I would also be very concerned about their impact on workers -- like the women in the maquiladoras -- who handle the plastics used both on the insides and outsides of electronics. These chemicals leave the finished plastics, travel with dust particles and are easily taken up by the body.

In circuit-board manufacture and electronics assembly, lead, adhesives, resins and solvents are among the substances of great concern. Lead is being phased out but it's not yet clear whether the TVs assembled in Mexican factories strictly for the U.S. market -- where RoHS does not apply (though some states, including California, are enacting similar legislation) -- will be lead-free or otherwise RoHS compliant.

POV: Is there a list of organizations you'd recommend as a resource for people who want to recycle old home appliances, computers, cell phones, and other electronic items?

Grossman: Yes. In Europe and Japan electronics recycling covers anything athat runs on electricity, but in the U.S. right now we're treating high-tech electronics differently than household appliances like refrigerators, microwaves, coffeemakers, etc. when it comes to recycling. Many communities now have special programs for appliance recycling (that includes re-use) run by nonprofits and local governments.

That said, most major electronics manufacturers now have their own take-back and recycling programs. (Type the "company name" and "recycling" into your search engine and you should find it.) These programs vary and change and may take time to use, but I like the idea of getting old equipment back to the manufacturer, because I think it helps push them to take responsibility for obsolete products, and presumably provides an incentive to design products that are more environmentally friendly and easier to recycle. The Computer TakeBack Campaign rates these programs on its annual report card.

When looking for recycling options, remember reuse is the first best option if the equipment is truly working. To that end, for computers, cell phones and other high tech devices, there are lots of resources listed through CompuMentor's TechSoup site, eBay's "ReThink" program which has a very good FAQ section, and the EPA's "eCycling" site, to name a few. Also check out outfits like Free Geek, which builds new equipment from used working parts.

When choosing an electronics recycler, things become trickier as you'll want to choose a responsible recycler who handles equipment in an environmentally sound, socially responsible way. There's no government or industry-wide certification program for this, but the Basel Action Network's website has a list of electronics recyclers throughout the country that have signed the organization's stewardship pledge, under which recyclers agree not to export e-waste, send it to landfill or use prison labor, and to document where equipment, parts and materials go.

Elizabeth Grossman is author of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics and Human Health, Watershed: The Undamming of America, and Adventuring Along the Lewis and Clark Trail, and co-editor of Shadow Cat: Encountering the American Mountain Lion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Nation, Salon, Orion, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other publications. She has received support for her work from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Nation Institute and The Fund for Investigative Journalism. A native of New York City, she has a B.A. in literature from Yale University, and when not at her desk writing, she's out exploring -- hiking, camping, paddling, sketching and watching birds. She lives in Portland, Oregon.