By Katie Pyzyk
To learn more about potential health hazards in electronics recycling operations and ow best to mitigate them, Cascade Asset Management opened its doors to federal researchers.
The mere thought of an environment, health, and safety inspection is enough to evoke nervousness in some scrap business owners. Electronics recycling carries a host of well-documented potential dangers—thermal incidents from lithium batteries and exposures to lead, cadmium, and other potential hazards top the list. But Cascade Asset Management volunteered its Madison, Wis., headquarters facility for research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that examined workers’ exposure to those factors as well as to a newer potential health concern: flame retardants. “We’ve been very curious about the potential exposure risk” workers have to flame retardants in electronics, says Neil Peters-Michaud, Cascade’s CEO, but “there weren’t any labs that could do these studies.” The research took place in 2017, and NIOSH’s final report, “Evaluation of Exposure to Metals and Flame Retardants at an Electronics Recycling Company,” came out this spring.
Peters-Michaud thought it was likely the research would find some exposure to flame retardants because the plastics in electronic devices often contain them. Until recently, many flame retardants were made from polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Some human epidemiologic studies have shown an association between exposure to PBDEs and cancer and other impacts on the reproductive, endocrine, and neurological systems, the NIOSH report states. Only two types of PBDE flame retardants have OSHA permissible exposure limits. The EPA mandated a phaseout of some PBDEs starting in 2006, and manufacturers have stopped incorporating PDBEs into electronics sold in the United States, but due to the delayed nature of new devices making their way to refurbishment and recycling facilities, the chemicals are likely to remain in the e-scrap stream for decades.
Human exposure comes from ingestion, inhalation, or through skin contact. Thus, the researchers wanted to examine whether electronics recycling employees are getting increased exposure from handling and dismantling these products. NIOSH’s report notes that the potential adverse affects of flame retardants have only recently been recognized, and “it is not clear at what levels these effects begin to occur. Evaluations like this one help us identify populations with potential exposure and may help establish baseline levels to evaluate employees in at-risk industries during future research.”
NIOSH, which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, typically receives investigation requests from employees, employers, or unions who want the organization to “evaluate workplaces for either potential health hazards or health effects that may be related to some workplace exposures,” says Reed Grimes, a medical officer in NIOSH’s Division of Field Studies and Engineering. In this case, the request came from Cascade Asset Management. Electronics recycling as a whole is “an emerging industry” for which it has received several health hazard evaluation requests since 2009, he says. Its previous research primarily focused on workers’ metal exposures. “There isn’t a wealth of information or data out there” regarding e-scrap handlers’ exposure to flame retardants, Grimes notes. The researchers wanted to determine which flame retardant exposures exist in e-scrap facilities and to compare them with exposures in the general population. They also looked at workers’ exposure to ergonomic stressors, to noise, and to metals, including lithium from batteries.
Under the microscope
Cascade Asset Management’s Madison facility consists of about 34,000 square feet of office and processing space. The facility sorts, inventories, tests, refurbishes, and resells functioning electronics and parts and dismantles electronics for recycling. Cascade asked for volunteers to participate in the research, and the researchers easily found the 19 employee volunteers they needed, Peters-Michaud says. NIOSH briefed the volunteers about the testing process and checked their urine creatinine and some blood cholesterol levels—information the researchers needed to interpret their lab tests. The volunteers received the results of their tests, and Cascade received anonymized, aggregated data on those tests but not individually identifiable data.
Ten researchers arrived on site in February 2017 to do the research. Over a two-day period, they used specialized wipes to test surfaces and hands, and they collected air samples, both of which they examined for nearly two dozen flame retardants and 32 elements. They also examined blood samples for cadmium, indium, lead, and eight flame retardants and urine samples for seven flame retardants. Participants filled out questionnaires about work practices such as job tasks, use of personal protective equipment, and hygiene, as well as other information. “It was great how the CDC did this. They sent information ahead of time, and representatives [spoke] English and Hmong—a language spoken by a lot of our production workers,” Peters-Michaud says.
Researchers wanted to collect the samples under normal operating conditions, but Cascade’s 60 employees “definitely noticed” the NIOSH presence, Peters-Michaud says. Employees did still “try to do normal work—disassembly, testing, and office work”—but volunteers providing air samples had to wear a breathing apparatus, which can be a distracting sight. It “took a little time to try to mimic a typical day,” he says. Cascade received preliminary results from NIOSH a few months after the 2017 testing occurred.
Peters-Michaud says he’s proud of Cascade’s emphasis on environmental health and safety and its regular EHS assessments. NIOSH’s report states that the Madison facility’s metals exposures are “well controlled” and flame retardant exposures were “typically lower than what has been seen in other electronic recycling companies.” Generally speaking, the work the researchers saw being done at the Madison facility was similar to work they have seen at other facilities throughout the industry, Grimes says, although “it was a cleaner facility than others I’d seen. … Management definitely places an emphasis on protecting workers.”
The research found higher levels of flame retardants on employees’ hands after they worked with e-scrap than before, but the chemicals did not appear to enter workers’ bodies via skin contact, researchers reported. Some flame retardants appeared in employees’ blood or urine, as well as in the air. A significant finding, however, is that the levels of PBDEs in employees’ blood and urine were not significantly higher than those of the general U.S. population. That pleased—and surprised—Peters-Michaud. “Even though there was higher exposure throughout the workday, it’s not necessarily going into people’s bloodstreams … That made me feel good,” he says.
The surface exposures still raise implications for health and safety. Employees potentially could self-contaminate by ingesting flame retardants on surfaces or on their hands through hand-to-mouth contact. They also could carry particles on their skin or clothing outside of the facility and into their vehicles or homes, potentially spreading exposure to other people.
As they expected, the researchers found that employees were exposed to certain metals, including cadmium and lead, but the levels the tests found did not exceed occupational exposure limits. The lead levels actually showed improvement over previous tests, Peters-Michaud says. For both metals and two flame retardants, the exposures the researchers found were lower than the occupational exposure limits. For other flame retardants, the exposures were generally lower than what had been seen at another e-scrap facility, Grimes says, the evaluation of which it published in May 2018 (HHE Report No. 20150050).
Researchers found instances of employees working in ways that create ergonomic health risks. They observed workers standing for long periods of time, performing repetitive motions, and working in suboptimal lighting, for example. Some of these findings were surprising to Cascade Asset Management’s leaders because the company provides equipment to alleviate these stresses, including ergonomic floor mats and workstation lights. However, the employees don’t always use the provided assistive equipment unless the company mandates it. “I heard this is a challenge NIOSH has seen in other locations, too,” Peters-Michaud says. “Over time, employees saw the benefits, but they initially felt uncomfortable using the equipment.” The researchers also observed employees using their PPE (such as earplugs and respirators) incorrectly. (Read the full report at www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/2016-0257-3333.pdf.)
The study results led NIOSH and Cascade Asset Management’s leaders to identify some actions it and other electronics recyclers can take to reduce EHS hazards related to metals, fire retardants, and ergonomics:
• Encourage good workplace hygiene—namely, washing hands regularly—to remove flame retardant particles from skin. This prevents self-contamination through hand-to-mouth contact as well as material transfers to environments outside the facility.
• Involve employees in a lead exposure prevention program. “Employers across the scrap industry could benefit” from this type of program, Grimes says. And provide employees with a lead-removing product to wash their hands. “Soap and water is not enough,” the report states.
• Do not dry sweep. “Use wet cleaning methods or high-efficiency particulate air vacuuming instead,” the report states. “Use a magnetic sweeper to remove metal scraps or loose screws from the work area.”
• Consider requiring uniforms or personal protective coverings (e.g., coveralls) that remain at work to prevent employees from carrying potentially hazardous particles on their clothing into vehicles and homes.
• Educate employees about why it’s important to use assistive and ergonomic equipment to prevent injuries that occur over time, such as eye strain, back ailments, and musculoskeletal disorders. Provide adjustable workstations, and consider making the use of assistive and ergonomic equipment mandatory.
• Re-train employees on the proper wear and use of PPE such as respirators and ear plugs, even if wearing them is voluntary.
More research is needed on EHS in electronics recycling in general and flame retardants in particular, NIOSH’s researchers say. This study established baseline levels of flame retardant exposures at e-scrap facilities, but subsequent studies could dig deeper into the potential health effects of the known exposures or the levels at which health hazards are likely to occur.
Grimes anticipates conducting more studies at electronics recyclers’ request as the e-scrap stream expands and evolves. “Hazards will continue to change because [electronics] is a dynamic stream,” he says. Likewise, the changing material stream and changing hazards make it even more important for electronics recycling facilities to frequently reassess and update their employee health and safety programs, Peters-Michaud says. The study results show that “a well-established and executed safety plan does go a long way to prevent potentially hazardous exposures in the industry … A company that invests in the health and safety of their workers can make a difference,” Grimes says.
Inviting NIOSH, OSHA, or other organizations to conduct an EHS evaluation carries the risk of uncovering significant threats to workers that the company will have to correct immediately to come into compliance. But that shouldn’t cause alarm for facilities with robust health and safety programs, Peters-Michaud says. “If we’re making a good effort to look out for the safety and health of our workers, we don’t have anything to hide … You have to go into everything with that mindset,” he says.
Katie Pyzyk is a contributing writer for Scrap.