Wednesday, January 17, 2007

American Inmates Cleanup Toxic eWaste

This looks bad.

Christopher Moraff has written an article on the computer 'recycling' industry being run by Federal Prison Industries (FPI). I've written before about some of the human rights issues related to the manufacture of electronics goods, particularly the coltan industry (see the Black Gold Rush.) In this case, prisoners are being paid between .23 and 1.15 per hour to disassemble eWaste, often without the proper tools:

“When the operation began, most glass room workers would heft the CRT to head height and slam the CRT down on the metal table and keep slamming it on the table until the glass broke away from whatever they were trying to remove,” said one prisoner quoted in the report. “We were getting showers of glass and chemicals out of the tube.”

The program is now operating in six federal prisons. According to the article, inmates are working without proper protective gear and are suffering from health issues, including slow-healing wounds, sinus problems, headaches, fatigue, and burning skin, eyes, noses and throats. This is not at all dissimilar to the symptoms reported by 'recyclers' in China and India.

The first thought that strikes me is that a baseline needs to be established on this type of activity. Not in a workplace, not in a federally mandated guide, but in peoples' minds. Computers are hazardous, they are filled with hazardous chemicals and materials, and need to be treated like hazardous waste. Like nuclear waste. Not like something that can be smashed down on tables by inmates.

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