Toxic Computers

One of the biggest issues facing the move towards greening IT comes from an unexpected source: the toxic materials used in the manufacture of communications, electronics, and information systems.

Whether you love them or hate them, matters not. Computers and information technologies are here to stay. Historically speaking most of us do not give so much as a second thought to the manufacture, maintenance, decommissioning and eventual disposal of computer, networking and information technology systems and devices.

Figure 1: Toxic Computers Toxic Materials Inside

When it comes to dealing with toxic and hazardous materials issues in the real world it always helps to know in advance, as much as possible about whatever may be confronting you as well as what to look out for and where to find it.

You will need to document the information so gleaned in order for it to be of use to you in the future. Hence, the creation of standard, custom and customizable hazard lists containing a complete register of the possible sources of hazardous and toxic materials will be the first item on our agenda.

Hazard List Creation

When compiling your lists of hazardous and toxic materials always bear in mind that almost all electronics will contain; lead and tin from solder and copper for wires cabling and as the traces on Printed Circuit Boards (PCB) including motherboards and adapter cards.

Full Inventory

The first step in the process of building your very own custom hazard list is to create an up-to-date list (full inventory) of items that you will need to take into consideration when undertaking the hazardous and toxic materials assessment.

IEEE & US EPA Templates

In order to save time the best approach to developing a hazardous and toxic materials list is to make use of the templates and lists that are publicly available through the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA).

I am sure that you will find that both the IEEEand US EPAwebsites are very good places to start. You will also be able to obtain benchmarks that show the efficiency of your servers. You will also find that there are huge quantities of free resources available to you for the asking at these web sites.

Alphabetical Hazards List

Here, as promised is an alphabetical list of some well-known hazardous/toxic materials and dangers posed by computers, communications and networking equipment and other electronic devices.

Aluminum – Heat sinks and fans, electrolytic capacitors, cases and enclosures (external HDD)

Batteries – Cadmium, Nickel, Lithium, Lead, Mercury, Nickel Metal Hydride, Iron, Phosphor (LiFeP)

Beryllium Oxide – Thermal paste

Cables and Wires – Copper – PVC insulation, do emit some EMR, which can be of concern when in the presence of sensitive equipment and strong electromagnetic fields. Shielded varieties will also contain various other metals used to provide the shielding

Cadmium – Batteries

Cathode-Ray Tube (CRT) – Lead – All CRT-based monitors contain lead. All CRT-based televisions also contain lead. Also, contain Copper and sometimes Gold. A typical CRT monitor can be over 6% lead by weight mainly contained in the glass

Copper – Wire, cabling, PCB traces and component leads, cooling fans

Electricity – Electrocution, fire, equipment damage

Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) – CRT monitors emit EMR, and by components within the system case as well as from cabling

Gold – Computer component connector plating (the golden fingers)

Indirect – Carbon Dioxide produced to generate the electricity used to power the PC, its components, peripherals and other devices

Iron – System case chassis, other cases, fittings, fixings

LCD Displays – Mercury – All LCD-based display systems contain mercury including LCD-based displays used as computer monitors, televisions and other LCD-based screens such as those to be found with digital cameras, Personal Digital Assistants (PDA), smart phones, cell phones, mobile devices etc may also have copper and gold components

Lithium – Batteries

Magnetic Tape – Environmentally unfriendly

Mercury – All LCD-based displays

Monitors – Monitors emit Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR)

Motherboards – There are a considerable number of toxic materials used in the manufacture of motherboards and many add-on adapter cards. Capacitors for example have a habit of leaking toxic chemicals.

Nickel - Batteries

Optical Disks – Pthylocyanine (gold discs) and Cyanine (blue discs) plastic and polycarbonate substrates

Power Supply Units (PSU) – Potentially dangerous electrical currents and voltages. PSU tend to be the most unreliable of all PC components

Printed Circuit Board (PCB) – Lead, Tin, Halogens, Plastics – The flame retardant, usually halogens, used in the manufacture of PCBs is toxic and makes it very difficult to recycle the material. Also, contain a considerable amount of lead-tin solders. A variety of environmentally “unfriendly” plastics are also used

Printers – Various metals, plastics and a large assortment of dyes and toners, which can create problems if released into waterways

Processors – Silicone, Aluminum, Copper, Gold and other trace elements

Semiconductors – Cadmium, Silicone, Gold, Copper, Aluminum

Silicone – Semiconductors, transistors, PCBs, integrated circuits

Silicone Paste – Silicone paste is a generic silicone compound applied to most Graphics Processing Units (GPU) and Northbridge chipsets. It is toxic.

Thermal Paste – Thermal paste is essential for ensuring adequate heat transfer from components with high thermal densities such as modern processors (Central Processing Unit or CPU), Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), RAM, chipsets etc.

The exact composition of thermal paste can vary from one manufacturer to another. Here are some of the more common components of thermal paste Micronized Silver, Boron Nitride, Aluminum Oxide and Aluminum Nitride all of which are rather toxic.

Tin – Tin is one of the ingredients in solders and as a coating on edge leads and contacts. The edge contacts, also called; “Golden Fingers” are the interfaces on adaptor cards and expansion slots.

Zinc – Plating


With in excess of 130,000 computers, being trashed everyday the problems concerning the handling and management of the toxic materials contained in these devices becomes ever more urgent. On top of this, more than 2 million tons of electronic waste found its way into U.S. landfills last year.

Now take into consideration the estimated 975 million PCs and servers that will enter into active service over the next couple of years and the enormity of the toxic computer issue takes on a new light. Most of these new machines will be replacing older machines for one reason or another and the entire picture becomes ever more compounded.

Toss in the fact that more than one billion new cell phones enter active service every year and even blind Freddy can see that something needs addressing now lest the situation becomes totally out of control.


Very useful article.


very illuminating – and a terrific amount of detail


Environment and electronic waste.

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