Recycled Electronics Lead to Hazardous Chemicals Appearing in Everyday Items

October 08, 2018
Hazardous chemicals such as bromine, antimony and lead are finding their way into food-contact items and other everyday products because manufacturers are using recycled electrical equipment as a source of black plastic, according to a recent study.
The substances are among those applied to devices, such as laptops and music systems, as flame retardants and pigments but remain within the products when they reach the end of their useful lives.
Now scientists at the University of Plymouth have shown that a combination of the growing demand for black plastic and the inefficient sorting of end-of-life electrical equipment is causing contaminated material to be introduced into the recyclate.
This is in part because despite black plastics constituting about 15 per cent of the domestic waste stream, this waste material is not readily recycled owing to the low sensitivity of black pigments to near infrared radiation used in conventional plastic sorting facilities.
The study was published in Environmental International and was conducted by Dr Andrew Turner, a Reader in Environmental Science at the University. As well as posing a threat to human health, he says the study demonstrates there are potentially harmful effects for the marine and coastal environment either through the spread of the products as litter or as microplastics.
For this research, Dr Turner used XRF spectrometry to assess the levels of a range of elements in more than 600 black plastic products such as food-contact items, storage, clothing, toys, jewelry, office items and new and old electronic and electrical equipment.
Bromine, in the form of brominated compounds, is and has been used in electrical plastic housings as a flame retardant, while lead is often encountered in electronic plastics as a contaminant. However, both elements were found extensively in non-electrical black consumer products tested, where they are not needed or desirable.
In many products, including cocktail stirrers, coathangers, various items of plastic jewellery, garden hosing, Christmas decorations and tool handles, concentrations of bromine potentially exceeded legal limits that are designed for electrical items. In other products, including various toys, storage containers and office equipment, concentrations of lead exceeded its legal limit for electrical items.
Speaking about the current study, Dr Turner said, “there are environmental and health impacts arising from the production and use of plastics in general, but black plastics pose greater risks and hazards. This is due to the technical and economic constraints imposed on the efficient sorting and separation of black waste for recycling, coupled with the presence of harmful additives required for production or applications in the electronic and electrical equipment and food packaging sectors.

“Black plastic may be aesthetically pleasing, but this study confirms that the recycling of plastic from electronic waste is introducing harmful chemicals into consumer products. That is something the public would obviously not expect, or wish, to see and there has previously been very little research exploring this. In order to address this, further scientific research is needed. But there is also a need for increased innovation within the recycling industry to ensure harmful substances are eliminated from recycled waste and to increase the recycling of black plastic consumer products.”
Black plastics: Linear and circular economies, hazardous additives and marine pollution by Dr Andrew Turner – is published in Environment International, doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2018.04.036.
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New Spheres Trick, Trap and Terminate Water Contaminants
Rice University scientists have developed something akin to the Venus’ flytrap of particles for water remediation.
Rice University researchers have enhanced micron-sized titanium dioxide particles to trap and destroy BPA, a water contaminant with health implications. Cyclodextrin molecules on the surface trap BPA, which is then degraded by reactive oxygen species (ROS) produced by the light-activated particles.
Micron-sized spheres created in the lab of Rice environmental engineer Pedro Alvarez are built to catch and destroy bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical used to make plastics. The research is detailed in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.
BPA is commonly used to coat the insides of food cans, bottle tops and water supply lines, and was once a component of baby bottles. While BPA that seeps into food and drink is considered safe in low doses, prolonged exposure is suspected of affecting the health of children and contributing to high blood pressure.
The good news is that reactive oxygen species (ROS) – in this case, hydroxyl radicals – are bad news for BPA. Inexpensive titanium dioxide releases ROS when triggered by ultraviolet light. But because oxidating molecules fade quickly, BPA has to be close enough to attack. That’s where the trap comes in.
Close up, the spheres reveal themselves as flower-like collections of titanium dioxide petals. The supple petals provide plenty of surface area for the Rice researchers to anchor cyclodextrin molecules.
Cyclodextrin is a benign sugar-based molecule often used in food and drugs. It has a two-faced structure, with a hydrophobic (water-avoiding) cavity and a hydrophilic (water-attracting) outer surface. BPA is also hydrophobic and naturally attracted to the cavity. Once trapped, ROS produced by the spheres degrades BPA into harmless chemicals.
In the lab, the researchers determined that 200 milligrams of the spheres per liter of contaminated water degraded 90 percent of BPA in an hour, a process that would take more than twice as long with unenhanced titanium dioxide.
“Petals” of a titanium dioxide sphere enhanced with cyclodextrin as seen under a scanning electron microscope. When triggered by ultraviolet light, the spheres created at Rice University are effective at removing bisphenol A contaminants from water. Courtesy of the Alvarez Lab
The work fits into technologies developed by the Rice-based and National Science Foundation-supported Center for Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment because the spheres self-assemble from titanium dioxide nanosheets.
“Most of the processes reported in the literature involve nanoparticles,” said Rice graduate student and lead author Danning Zhang. “The size of the particles is less than 100 nanometers. Because of their very small size, they’re very difficult to recover from suspension in water.”
The Rice particles are much larger. Where a 100-nanometer particle is 1,000 times smaller than a human hair, the enhanced titanium dioxide is between 3 and 5 microns, only about 20 times smaller than the same hair. “That means we can use low-pressure microfiltration with a membrane to get these particles back for reuse,” Zhang said. “It saves a lot of energy.”
Because ROS also wears down cyclodextrin, the spheres begin to lose their trapping ability after about 400 hours of continued ultraviolet exposure, Zhang said. But once recovered, they can be easily recharged.
“This new material helps overcome two significant technological barriers for photocatalytic water treatment,” Alvarez said. “First, it enhances treatment efficiency by minimizing scavenging of ROS by non-target constituents in water. Here, the ROS are mainly used to destroy BPA.
“Second, it enables low-cost separation and reuse of the catalyst, contributing to lower treatment cost,” he said. “This is an example of how advanced materials can help convert academic hypes into feasible processes that enhance water security.”
Co-authors of the paper are Rice graduate student Hassan Javed and postdoctoral research fellow Pingfeng Yu; Rice alumnus Changgu Lee, an assistant professor at Ajou University, South Korea; and Jae-Hong Kim, a professor and chair of chemical and environmental engineering at Yale University. Alvarez is the George R. Brown Professor of Materials Science and NanoEngineering and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice. The National Science Foundation supported the research.
Plant Manager Indicted for Violating the Clean Water Act
Carlos Conde, 37, of Smyrna, Georgia was arraigned on federal charges on October 2, 2018, for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act and for making false statements to a federal agent.  Conde was indicted by a federal grand jury on September 25, 2018.
“Conde allegedly instructed workers to intentionally wash toxic and hazardous chemicals into the Chattahoochee River watershed,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “The Chattahoochee is one of Georgia’s jewels that must be protected from those who recklessly damage the wildlife and environment.”
“It is important that we continue to remain vigilant to protect our precious waters throughout the southeast,” said Trey Glenn, Regional Administrator for the EPA Southeast Region (Region 4). “EPA takes seriously any allegations of improper disposal of toxic and hazardous chemicals, which pose serious threats to public health and the environment.”
According to U.S. Attorney Pak, the charges, and other information presented in court: On August 12, 2016, a batching tank at the Apollo Industries chemical mixing facility in Smyrna, Georgia, began leaking a carburetor cleaner containing naphthalene, a toxic and hazardous chemical.  The following morning, two workers discovered the spill and called Conde, the plant manager.  Conde arrived at the plant and allegedly instructed the employees to wash the chemical away with water from multiple hoses.  The chemical was washed into a tributary of Nickajack Creek and the Chattahoochee River.  Conde allegedly twice denied his role in the spill cleanup during interviews with a federal agent with the EPA.
The indictment only contains charges.  The defendant is presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the government’s burden to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.
This case is being investigated by the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Huber, Deputy Chief of the Complex Fraud Section is prosecuting the case.
California Cracking Down on Illegal Diesel Soot Filters
LKQ Corporation, a Chicago-based provider of alternative and specialty automotive parts, has agreed to pay a $294,000 penalty for selling illegal, used diesel particulate (soot) filters, violating California’s Aftermarket Parts and Diesel Particulate Filter Verification Regulations.
It is illegal to sell or install a used diesel soot filter for use in heavy-duty trucks in California.  It is also illegal for a business to install one of these filters without being authorized by the filter manufacturer.
In a related case in 2017, West Coast Diesel, a Fresno repair shop caught selling and installing illegal parts, agreed to a settlement that included additional monetary penalties should they violate the terms of the agreement by installing even one diesel particulate filter. Several other Central Valley diesel repair shops are now under investigation for selling and installing illegal filters.
“The sales of illegal diesel particulate filters in California needs to stop, and I hope the actions announced today demonstrate the seriousness of these violations,” said CARB Enforcement Chief Todd Sax. “These companies sold cheap, illegal filters, harvested from other vehicles, to unsuspecting truckers.”
Diesel filters in trucks trap soot that causes cancer, and so they are very important to protecting public health.  California law requires truck owners to keep their diesel particulate filters in working order, and to replace the filter if it is damaged and not working properly.  Only CARB -certified filters may be sold, installed, or operated in California.  Using an uncertified or improperly installed filter can damage an engine and expose those around the truck to toxic diesel soot.
Today’s announcement sends a critical message to business owners as well as consumers that CARB is actively enforcing the state’s landmark Truck and Bus Regulation, which requires truck owners to clean up their fleets by installing 2010 or newer engines by 2023, as well as its regulations governing the use and sale of diesel filters.
“Truckers need to understand the compliance process and take responsibility for properly maintaining their vehicles, including their soot filters,” said Sax.  “We encourage truckers to check our CARB Truckstop website for information.  Truckers can also call us at 1 866 6DIESEL and we will explain the requirements and what needs to be done.”
Sax also stressed that truckers need to take responsibility when it comes to choosing a repair shop for vehicle maintenance.  These shops should be selling new, CARB-authorized filters, and their personnel should be properly trained by the filter manufacturer on the installation process.
“Truckers should make sure that when installing or replacing their diesel particulate filter that a CARB-approved device is being used,” said Sax.  “When shopping for a filter, remember that if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Sax also noted that it may be more cost-effective to buy a newer truck, since putting on a filter only ensures compliance for a couple of years at best, according to the Truck and Bus regulation phase-in schedule.  Truckers can call CARB to find out if they might be eligible for loans or other financial incentives to help purchase new or newer equipment.
To settle its case and avoid legal action, LKQ agreed to pay $294,000 to the Air Pollution Control Fund to support air pollution research and education.  In addition, the company updated its website and is no longer selling or advertising used filters for the California market.
Diesel exhaust contains a variety of harmful gases and more than 40 other known cancer-causing compounds. In 1998, California identified diesel particulate matter as a toxic air contaminant based on its potential to cause cancer, premature death and other health problems.
Eversource Energy Company Penalized $117,911 for Environmental Violations in Northfield, Rowe and Ashfield
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) has issued a $117,911 penalty to Eversource Energy (NSTAR Electric Company) for environmental violations connected to work on Eversource’s electrical distribution system in the towns of Northfield, Rowe and Ashfield.
MassDEP asserted that the work conducted by Eversource required permits because it did not meet the requirements for exempt maintenance work under the Wetlands Protection Act and/or it occurred in Waters of the United States without a permit.
Eversource must pay $29,478 of the assessed penalty, and the company must conduct a Supplemental Environmental Project with a value of at least $88,433.
The consent order requires that Eversource restore or mitigate for all of the impacts that resulted from the unpermitted alterations. In addition, a Supplemental Environmental Project requires that Eversource conduct additional resource improvement projects in resource areas located in the Connecticut River and/or Hoosic River/Kinderhook Creek watersheds with a qualitative value of at least twice that of the direct restoration it is required to conduct.
Eversource is also required to review all other projects conducted in western Massachusetts since January 1, 2015 to determine whether work that required permits occurred, to identify such projects and unpermitted impacts and to propose a restoration or mitigation plan for those impacts.
“Although the Wetlands Protection Act allows utilities to conduct maintenance projects without permits, activities that go beyond this specific exemption may be harmful to the environment. It is imperative that we review and condition proposed work through the established permitting process,” said Michael Gorski, director of MassDEP’s Western Regional Office in Springfield.  “This settlement, in addition to penalizing Eversource for the violations, directs a significant portion of that penalty to restoration activities in the region where the violations occurred.”
Clouser Drilling Inc. Fined for Water Quality Violations
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has fined Clouser Drilling Inc. $10,800 for discharging drill cuttings into Jones Creek from a construction site without a permit.
DEQ received a complaint that Jones Creek appeared milky white on June 6. On June 7, a DEQ inspector visited the Edgewater Christian Fellowship Construction Site in Grants Pass. The inspector saw that drill cuttings from a well that Clouser Drilling had recently drilled had been discharged into Jones Creek, which is designated as Essential Salmon Habitat.
Sediment contained in drill cuttings poses a risk to beneficial uses of waters of the state. Sediment can harm fish and other aquatic life because it can block light from submerged vegetation killing plants and lowering oxygen levels in the water.
Rocky Mountain Construction Fined $26,197 for Stormwater Violations
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has issued a $26,197 penalty to Rocky Mountain Construction for multiple stormwater permit violations at its concrete batch plant facility located at 2943 Laverne Avenue in Klamath Falls.
The company failed to monitor stormwater discharge on sixteen occasions beginning in September 2014. Rocky Mountain Construction failed to implement pollution reduction measures in accordance with its stormwater pollution control plan and failed to conduct site inspections as required by its permit.
Stormwater is water that runs off land, streets, parking lots, rooftops and other impervious surfaces after rain or snowfall. Stormwater often contains a range of pollutants that harm water quality.
DEQ issued the penalty because it relies on stormwater monitoring and site inspections to ensure compliance with pollution limits. The inspections and pollution reduction measures required by the stormwater permit and the stormwater pollution control plan are intended to reduce pollutant loads in the stormwater that the facility discharges to the Klamath River.
DEQ has ordered the company to take multiple corrective actions to return to compliance with its stormwater permit.
Illinois EPA Refered Sterigenics to Attorney General for Enforcement
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Director Alec Messina has referred an enforcement action to the Illinois Attorney General's Office against Sterigenics US, LLC (Sterigenics) based on the findings of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in its Letter Health Consultation and on information provided by U.S. EPA. The Agency is seeking an order enjoining Sterigenics from continuing operations that result in any emissions of ethylene oxide either until a complete review of additional modeling and risk assessment is completed by U.S. EPA or until U.S. EPA otherwise assures the community that resumed operations would not present an elevated health risk.
Sterigenics is a commercial sterilizer that primarily uses ethylene oxide (EtO) to sterilize medical equipment. It operates in two buildings at 7775 Quincy Street and 830 Midway in Willowbrook.
As part of the process for assessing new cancer risk assumptions nationwide, U.S. EPA chose to evaluate the implications of the recently updated Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) at the Sterigenics facility in Willowbrook. U.S. EPA provided that data to ATSDR, and ATSDR concluded, in an August 21, 2018 report, that "if measured and modeled data represent typical EtO ambient concentrations in the air, an elevated cancer risk exists for residents and off-site workers in the Willowbrook community surrounding the Sterigenics facility."
On September 28, 2018, Illinois officials and local community representatives met with U.S. EPA to discuss the status of U.S. EPA's ongoing evaluation and testing at Sterigenics. While progress has been made, it is evident that additional weeks or months will pass before U.S. EPA will be in a position to provide an updated risk assessment and propose any resulting changes to relevant regulations. The lack of certainty continues to raise public concern. In addition, the September 28 meeting increased that concern due to information discussed. In particular, the August 21 ATSDR report referenced a "30-fold increase in cancer potency," but at the September 28 meeting, U.S. EPA referenced a 60-fold increase.
In the referral, the Illinois EPA cited the findings of the ATSDR Letter Health Consultation and information provided at the September 28 meeting with U.S. EPA. In addition to the Agency requesting an order enjoining Sterigenics from continuing operations, the Agency requests, as an alternative, the Attorney General's Office pursue a violation of Section 9(a) of the Illinois Environmental Protection Act. Illinois EPA also requests Sterigenics pursue EtO emission limits for the Willowbrook facility that would be memorialized in an amended permit.
MacLellan Concrete Fined for Stormwater Violations
EPA announced a settlement with J.G. MacLellan Concrete Co., that resolves alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. MacLellan, which manufactures ready-mix concrete in Lowell, Mass., and Milford, N.H., has agreed to make environmental improvements at its Lowell plant worth $94,500 to settle claims that it violated federal clean water laws at both facilities. MacLellan also agreed to pay a penalty of $50,000 for its failure to fully comply with various Clean Water Act regulations related to its discharge of stormwater and storage of oil.
"This settlement means a cleaner Merrimack River and stands to prevent future violations at MacLellan's Lowell facility," said EPA New England Regional Administrator Alexandra Dunn. "Reducing stormwater pollution across New England is a top priority for EPA and this settlement furthers our work to protect and restore the region's iconic waters."
The settlement is the latest in a series of enforcement actions taken by EPA New England to address stormwater violations from industrial facilities and construction sites around New England.
Under the terms of the settlement, MacLellan Concrete Co., will remove a storm drain from a public road in front of the Lowell plant and re-grade the plant's entrances, which together will reduce pollution from stormwater discharges at the Lowell site. The Lowell facility discharges water into the Merrimack River, and the Milford facility discharges into the Skowhegan River.
The case stems from a January 2017 inspection in Lowell and a November 2016 inspection in Milford. Following these inspections, EPA's New England office charged the company with failure to follow the requirements in its permits for discharging stormwater, unauthorized discharge of water used in washing down its concrete trucks at the Lowell facility, and failure to comply with the Clean Water Act's Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure regulations.
Process waste water discharges are prohibited under the Clean Water Act unless a company obtains a permit allowing those discharges. Wastewater from concrete plants typically contains high pH, oils, greases, and high levels of solids. When these solids settle they can form sediment deposits that destroy plant life and spawning grounds of fish. Alkaline waters that wash-off trucks and from concrete manufacturing sites are highly corrosive. Rather than get individual discharge permits with strict waste limits, most concrete manufacturing facilities treat, and often recycle, their process wastewaters onsite.
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