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In Our Opinion: Safe e-recycling of polychlorinated biphenyls

Yellow caution tape.

The authors are requesting audience feedback on education materials they’ve created on best practices for handling polychlorinated biphenyls. | tonyz20/Shutterstock

Electronic recycling facilities handle waste that contains a variety of toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (not to be confused with printed circuit boards), but no comprehensive PCB exposure assessment for workers in the U.S. e-recycling industry has been published. We recently developed best practice guidelines to help e-recycling facility employees safely identify and handle scrap equipment containing these legacy chemicals.

What are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)?

PCBs are a group of man-made organic chemicals consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine atoms that contain 209 individual compounds or congeners. PCBs were domestically manufactured from 1929 until manufacturing was banned in 1979. Many commercial PCB mixtures are known in the U.S. by the trade name Arochlor. They have a range of toxicity and vary in consistency from thin, light-colored liquids to yellow or black waxy solids.

Diana Ceballos

Why are PCBs so toxic?

The health effects of PCB exposure have been widely studied and this evidence is one of the reasons that manufacturing was banned in 1979. The most commonly observed health effects in people exposed to large amounts of PCBs are skin conditions such as acne and rashes, although high exposure may result in coma and death. PCB-related health effects may vary based on length of exposure but range from irritation, respiratory tract symptoms, developmental effects, liver and gastrointestinal effects, neurobehavioral and immunological changes to cancer.

Where are PCBs found in e-waste?

Because they don’t burn easily and are good insulating materials, PCBs were used widely as coolants, sealants, and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment. PCBs were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications. PCBs were used in electrical equipment because of performance and safety attributes such as fire resistance and flame retardancy. Today, PCBs are found mainly in transformers and capacitors manufactured before 1977. PCBs are often found in the following e-waste:

  • Old industrial equipment (e.g., welding equipment).
  • Medical equipment (e.g., X-ray).
  • Household appliances and electronics (e.g., refrigerators, microwaves, televisions, old computers).
  • Electrical equipment components in transformers, voltage regulators, capacitors, switches, and lamp ballasts, among others.

How are workers exposed to PCBs in e-recycling?

Occupational exposure to PCBs typically occurs mainly via the inhalation and dermal routes. Inhalation occurs when a worker breathes air that is contaminated with PCBs. Dermal absorption or even ingestion occurs when workers’ skin comes into contact with PCB-containing materials. A study in China documented PCBs migrating from work to the homes of e-recycling workers, so children and families can also be exposed to these hazardous chemicals.

Why is it important to take precautions against PCBs in e-recycling?

Marty Alvarez

Not all facilities process e-waste that contains PCBs. However, from many observations in Dr. Ceballos’ research in the industry at many facilities around the country, it is possible and common for a facility to encounter e-waste that contains PCBs even if only during transit, storage, or sorting before it goes to another facility or for hazardous waste disposal. PCBs are not easy-to-handle materials and follow different regulations that are complicated to navigate.

Need for education in PCBs in e-recycling

As part of a National Institutes of Health-funded study at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in collaboration with Boston University School of Public Health, we performed a review of the literature and of the existing educational materials on PCBs in e-recycling. We concluded that currently there are no safe-handling recommendations tailored for how to recycle e-waste containing PCBs. Thus, we developed best practice guidelines for how to do it safely. The guidelines were used to create educational materials to help inform electronics recycling workers and facility owners of PCB electronic waste, and how to identify PCB waste, hazards, and safety measures.

These materials were informed by a review of current research and guidance from the U.S. EPA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information. The materials were also developed under guidance from PCB and electronics recycling experts.

Although PCBs are banned, there is still much old PCB e-waste yet to be treated. Until no more PCBs are found on e-waste, we hope these tailored guidelines help the industry to protect workers and the environment against PCBs.

How you can help

We are asking industry experts, facility owners, managers, and administrators to review any of the materials we developed, including:

Please click on the following link for instructions on how to print and fold the tri-fold brochure.

Then we ask that you share feedback through participating in the anonymous online survey.

Survey answers will offer us information about the accuracy and usability of the content, help us get the word out via outreach and education to all within the electronics recycling industry including workers, and help us evaluate how effective the materials are across the electronics recycling industry. Completing the online anonymous survey will take 5-10 minutes.

We truly appreciate any feedback on these materials.

Diana Ceballos is from the Boston University School of Public Health and Marty Alvarez is from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.


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