EPA isn’t doing enough to protect Americans from electronic waste, watchdog says

The Environmental Protection Agency isn’t doing enough to protect Americans from the possible health effects from the country’s burgeoning electronic waste heap, the agency’s internal watchdog warns.

The United States disposed of or incinerated 1.77 million tons of  so-called E-waste in 2009, an amount that makes people susceptible to “cancers, miscarriages, neurological damage and diminished intelligence,” EPA’s inspector general said in a report this week.

Despite the growing heap, “EPA does not have adequate information to ensure effective E-waste management and enforcement to protect public health and conserve valuable resources,” the report said.

E-waste is essentially the leftover parts from any electronic device, and it mostly comes from televisions, computers and mobile devices that are broken and beyond repair. Inside these devices are sometimes toxic metals, which can include arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.

The waste also includes valuable materials, such as rare earth metals that are in short supply and could be better recycled.

“Electronic products are made from valuable resources and highly engineered materials, including metals, plastics, and glass that have significant recycling potential,” the IG noted. “Reusing and recycling electronics conserves our natural resources and avoids air and water pollution, as well as greenhouse gas emissions that are caused during extraction and manufacturing of virgin materials.”

While appreciating the need for recycling, EPA lacks many specific E-waste regulations, the watchdog said, though it has made progress by setting a national strategy and encouraging voluntary programs.

Still, its only specific regulation involves cathode ray tubes. These are picture-producing tubes in televisions and computer monitors that predate modern flat screen devices. Many of these CRTs exceed the legal limit for lead, so the EPA began regulating their disposal in 2007.

Though America has experienced a boom in electronic devices in the last decade ranging from tablets to flat-screen TVs, EPA still hasn’t addressed concerns first raised inside the agency back in 2004 that it lacks reliable information on where and how E-waste is accumulating.

“Without such information, EPA cannot track the progress of its efforts to support its waste management hierarchy goal of promoting E-waste recycling and reuse over disposal,” the report said.

EPA officials say the agency has made progress monitoring E-waste and noted the Obama administration released a national strategy blueprint in 2011 for how such waste should be recycled, based on input from numerous federal agencies.

“The national strategy represents the federal government’s plan for improving electronics stewardship in the United States and as such, it is EPA’s roadmap for actions,” the agency said in response to the report.

The watchdog noted, however, that the national strategy lacks a definition of what constitutes E-waste, and what parts pose the most danger if disposed of improperly. “EPA does not have a uniform definition of E-waste or a comprehensive list of electronics that are categorized as E-waste. Further, the National Strategy does not seek to address the lack of a clear and consistent definition,” the IG noted.

EPA said defining E-waste is “difficult and not practical,” but it agreed with many of its watchdog’s other recommended improvements.

However, the agency cited budget cuts as the reason it couldn’t act on one recommendation to have a fulltime effort aimed at monitoring firms that export electronic waste.

“Since the CRT enforcement effort was initiated in 2008, EPA’s enforcement resources have declined. EPA, therefore, cannot maintain an initiative solely targeted at electronic waste exporters,” the agency said. “Instead, EPA will continue to inspect electronics recyclers as part of its routine compliance monitoring and enforcement efforts.”

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