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EPA Gets Poor Marks For E-Waste Oversight

The recycling of electronic devices, particularly CRTs, may expose workers and their local environment to toxic materials.
A newly issued Government Accountability Office report slams the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect the environment from electronic waste.

The report finds that U.S. hazardous waste regulations have failed to deter the export of potentially hazardous used electronics. The reason for this is threefold: because EPA regulations focus only on cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors; because EPA rules are easily circumvented; and because the EPA fails to enforce its rules.

Americans disposed of more than 300 million electronic devices in 2006, according to the EPA. Between 80% and 85% of these devices end remain in the United States, mainly in landfills. About 15% to 20% get exported for recycling or reuse.

The recycling of electronic devices, particularly CRTs, may expose workers and their local environment to toxic materials.

According to a Chinese medical school study published in 2007 in Environmental Health Perspectives, children living in Guiyu, China, had lead levels in their blood that were 50% higher than the limit set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.

The GAO report says that the EPA only regulates the export of CRTs, even though the improper disposal of other devices can cause health problems. It also says that the EPA's "enforcement is lacking."

The report states, "Since the CRT rule took effect in January 2007, Hong Kong officials intercepted and returned to U.S. ports 26 containers of illegally exported CRTs. EPA has since penalized one violator, and then only long after the shipment had been identified by GAO."

The CRT rule is also easily flouted. GAO investigators posed as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and other countries. They found 43 U.S. companies that expressed willingness to export the hazardous CRTs for them, "including ones that publicly tout their exemplary environmental record."

The GAO expects a surge in CRT disposal as the U.S. transitions from analog to digital TV broadcasting in 2009.

The EPA has taken issue with the GAO's findings, saying in a letter that a draft copy of the report "does not provide a complete or balanced picture of the Agency's electronic waste program."

The GAO characterizes the EPA's position thus: "EPA contends that it should instead pursue non-regulatory, voluntary approaches to address the problems discussed [in the GAO's report]."

The GAO recommends that the EPA develop a timetable for implementing an enforcement plan for the CRT rule, that it evaluate options for regulating other exported used electronics, and that it submit a legislative package to Congress to complete ratification of the Basel Convention, which regulates the import and export of hazardous waste between most industrialized countries excluding the United States.