Tuesday, March 09, 2004

UN study shows environmental consequences from ongoing boom in personal computer sales

Just to demonstrate how dependent we are on fossil fuels, a new United Nations University study has measured the amount of oil required to make personal computers, the toxic chemicals used in their manufacture, and the demand for electricity created by PCs.

The average 24 kg (53 lbs) desktop computer with monitor requires at least 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals to manufacture, much more materials intensive than an automobile or refrigerator, which only require 1-2 times their weight in fossil fuels.

Researchers found that manufacturing one desktop computer and 17-inch CRT monitor uses at least 240 kg (530 lbs) of fossil fuels, 22 kg (50 lbs) of chemicals and 1,500 kg (3,330 lbs) of water -– a total of 1.8 tonnes (1.9 English tons) of materials -- roughly the weight of a rhinoceros or sports utility vehicle (SUV).

While computers become smaller and more powerful, their environmental impacts are increasing. The materials- and energy-intense production process, greater adoption of PCs worldwide, plus the rapid rate at which they are discarded for newer machines, add up to growing mountains of garbage and increasingly serious contributions to resource depletion, environmental pollution and climate change. ...

Hundreds or even thousands of chemicals, many of them toxic, are used to produce a computer and a set of specific health concerns has arisen regarding chemical exposure in the production process. Another pressing concern is the environmental and health impacts of emissions of hazardous substances from discarded computer equipment.

While the microchip industry has fewer accidental injuries compared to heavy industries, concerns have arisen over whether possible health effects of long-term exposure of workers to toxic chemicals. Former workers in semiconductor fabrication facilities have filed lawsuits alleging that exposure to chemicals in their work is linked to birth defects and cancer. These suits are still pending and fears may well be exaggerated, but there is scant scientific evidence to prove nor disprove links to birth defects and cancers. There is a need for epidemiological studies, yet little action taken to see that these are done.

A group of chemicals called brominated flame retardants used in circuit boards and plastic computer cases is of particular concern. Recent studies in the United States, Canada and Sweden show that concentrations of these compounds in humans have been increasing rapidly. In sufficient dosages, they can cause neuro-developmental disorders and possibly cancer.

Monitors, and to a lesser extent computers, contain significant quantities of heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium, which pose potential health risks to production workers and environmental risks to water supplies near landfills where they are eventually dumped. ....

A study commissioned by the US Department of Energy showed that 3% of US electricity consumption in 2000 was due to IT equipment. Book contributor Danielle Cole says that while the increased popularity of liquid crystal displays over CRTs tends to lower electricity use by computers, newer generations of microprocessors and larger monitors tend to use much more than their predecessors.

Much electricity is wasted as computers also tend to be left on when not in use, even overnight. Many users falsely believe that turning off machines can harm the components. In practice, turning computers on and off shortens their lifespan only after around 20 years of use, not relevant for most equipment.


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