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Toxic PCs destroy life as we know it

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A United Nations research group has called on member states to reduce the environmental damage caused by computer kit.

Gram for gram, computers create more pollution than cars according to the UN research, they contain many toxic chemicals and because of the short life of much of the equipment, create mountains of waste.

The pollution begins before a machine even leaves the factory: The UN research group estimates that manufacturing a 24kg PC (with a monitor) takes energy equivalent to 240kg of fossil fuels, needs 22kg of chemicals and 1.5 tonnes of water.

The environmental damage does not stop once the machine in binned. Discarded kit typically ends up in landfill (still cheaper in the UK than much of the rest of Europe) where it can pose significant health risks.

Manufacturers and computer users need better incentives to upgrade or re-use computer hardware instead of throwing it away, the report's authors told The BBC.

In the UK, the DTI is consulting with industry on the implementation of the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive. This is intended to divert all electrical and electronic equipment from landfill, and ensure it is safely recyled.

Intellect, the trade association representing the UK's ICT sector, urged the Government to quickly give clear guidance, so that companies can start to plan, and invest in the right areas to meet their obligations.

According to Dudley Ollis, Intellect’s head of environmental Services, the UK hi-tech industry is committed to the protection of the environment. But implementation must be flexible both for financing arrangements, and the way in which producers meet their obligations.

Computers contain chemicals such as brominated flame retardants and heavy metals like lead and cadmium. In theory, these chemicals can leach into the ground where they are dumped, contaminating local water supplies.

Several law suits are pending from semiconductor fab workers who claim a link between their work and birth defects and cancer. ®

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