What IT pros should know about exposure to hazardous materials

From circuit boards to monitors to batteries to cables, toxic substances pose a very real threat to those who work with computer equipment. Here are some hazmat basics that every IT pro should be aware of.

From circuit boards to monitors to batteries to cables, toxic substances pose a very real threat to those who work with computer equipment. Here are some hazmat basics that every IT pro should be aware of.

When you think about hazardous materials handling, you may think about people who work at chemical companies or nuclear power plants. But IT professionals work every day with equipment that contains toxic materials. That's why disposing of old computer and electronics equipment can be a challenge.

To protect yourself and others from exposure to potentially dangerous substances, and to avoid liability for violating environmental regulations, you need to know about the risks posed by various devices and supplies and how to minimize those risks.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

Generally, electronic waste is classified as hazardous if it contains components that are toxic (poisonous), ignitable/combustible, corrosive, or reactive. Most electronic devices contain heavy metals, such as lead. If the hazardous components get into landfills, the hazardous substances can then get into the soil and perhaps seep into the groundwater.

Legal issues regarding hazardous substances and hazardous waste handling

The Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive is EU legislation that bans the use of certain substances or regulates the amount of certain substances that can be used in electrical and electronic equipment. There is no equivalent federal law in the United States, but California's Electronic Waste Recycling Act (EWRA) is based on the RoHS directive, and other states are considering similar laws.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was passed in 1976. It lays out federal regulations for disposing of materials that are regarded as hazardous (as well as other types of waste) and has been amended to strengthen the laws three times — in 1984, 1991, and 1996.

Each state also has its own regulations regarding how to handle hazardous waste materials. In many cases, these are more restrictive than the federal laws. The EPA offers a list of links relating to hazardous waste disposal in the various states and territories.

What's inside those computers that poses a risk?

When you open up a computer's case, what do you see? The motherboard, memory modules, video cards, sound cards, and so forth are all made from circuit boards. And circuit boards often contain poisonous metals that are used in the manufacturing process, including mercury and lead. Both of these can have profound health effects in humans.

Mercury toxicity is such a problem that some countries have proposed banning the metal completely. Mercury poisoning causes damage to the central nervous system, liver, and other organs and causes impairment of the senses (vision, speech, and hearing). Lead toxicity can cause anemia, irreversible neurological damage, cardiovascular effects, gastrointestinal symptoms, and renal disease. Although merely handling computer components does not constitute a dangerous level of exposure to these substances, the effects are cumulative — and we are already exposed to lead and mercury through other sources, such as household products, paint, and food (especially fish).

The internals of computers can also contain bromine, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) may be present in the plastic coatings on cables. Bromine-based products have been suspected of causing hypothyroidism, as well as Attention Deficit Disorder and other behavioral problems in children. Toxic substances called phthalates can leech out of PVC products. Phthalates have been linked in some studies to kidney and liver damage, and some phthalates have been labeled carcinogens by the EPA.

Older workstations, servers, and laptops pose the greatest hazard. In recent years, many computer manufacturers have moved to reduce the toxic components in the systems they sell. When buying new systems, reduce the risk by purchasing those that are selected by EPEAT (the EPA's Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool).

Monitor mayhem

I vividly remember the sticker on the back of one of my first CRT monitors. It basically said, "Don't open this case or I will kill you." Cathode Ray Tube computer monitors and TVs contain capacitors that can hold a charge of hundreds of volts for a long time after the device is unplugged. Additionally, there is a vacuum within CRT monitors that can cause an implosion if the glass is broken. Finally, CRTs contain phosphors and barium compounds, which are toxic, and the glass may be leaded.

Most people are aware of the dangers posed by old CRTs, but they may not be aware of the fact that modern LCD flat panels can also pose a hazard. In fact, liquid crystal display screens may also contain lead, as well as copper at levels in excess of regulatory limits. The backlight may also contain mercury.

Batteries and other consumables

There are many types of batteries that you may run across in your job as an IT pro, from AAA dry cells that go in wireless keyboards and pointing devices to the large batteries that power uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs). Some are classified as hazardous goods and others aren't. In general, the common AAA, AA, C, and D cell batteries are not, but they can still pose a threat of fire from short circuits if you don't ensure that the terminals are properly covered.

Lithium and lithium ion batteries such as those in many portable computers and cell phones can overheat and ignite if you drop them or if they receive a blow or if they short-circuit. For this reason, some delivery services have special regulations governing shipments of these batteries.

Some UPS devices and some older computers use lead acid batteries (like car batteries). These contain sulfuric acid that's very corrosive and can pose a big danger if they leak.

Batteries also contain heavy metals, including lead, mercury, nickel, and cadmium. Nicad (nickel cadmium), silver oxide, mercury oxide, some zinc carbon, and even some alkaline batteries are considered to be hazardous waste under various state laws.

Batteries can be recycled, and it's best to take used batteries to a recycling facility. If that's not possible, you may need to take them to a hazardous waste disposal facility.

Other consumable supplies, such as printer cartridges, can also contain hazardous materials and should be recycled or disposed of in accordance with proper procedures, not thrown into the trash. Inkjet inks and laser tone dust can contain harmful chemicals, and the cartridges themselves often contain PVC and bromine-based flame retardants.

Other hazards in the server room

It's not just the computer equipment and supplies that can pose a hazardous materials risk. The server room itself may have components that require special handling and disposal. We've already mentioned that PVC can be hazardous, and you'll find it in many places. Ethernet cables are often jacketed in PVC, and PVC pipes are sometimes used as conduits for running cable. Lead-based heat stabilizers are added to PVC for wiring and cable applications, as well. And the wires inside the cable are usually copper.

Many companies have switched from using traditional incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. These use far less energy and produce considerably less heat; however, CFL bulbs — like other fluorescent lights — contain mercury, and some states and local governmental entities have outlawed disposing of them in the trash. It is important to avoid breaking them, which releases the mercury.

If your server room is in an old building, there may be additional hazardous materials such as lead-based paint or asbestos in the insulation or acoustical ceiling. Cleaning solvents used to clean the floors can also be sources of risk.


Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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