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University study finds cell phones could be classified as hazardous waste

WASHINGTON-A new government-funded study says mobile phones and other high-tech gear often release enough lead to be classified as hazardous waste under federal law, a finding that could force the Bush administration and states to consider changing disposal rules for millions of tons of electronic devices that otherwise end up in landfills and incinerators around the country.

The data from the study, led by University of Florida environmental engineering associate professor Tim Townsend, was presented in a draft report to the Environmental Protection Agency at a meeting last month in Chicago.

“The bottom line is that when we tested these devices, in many cases they met the EPA definition for regulated hazardous waste,” said Townsend.

EPA funded the study.

Every year many millions of cell phones and personal computers are thrown out for various reasons. While industry and states have recycling programs for used phones, environmentalists claim such efforts recover only a small percentage of discarded wireless handsets.

In addition to lead, cell phones are said to include arsenic, cadmium, antimony, beryllium, copper, nickel and mercury. The fear is that as millions of cell phones are disposed of with other trash, the potential exists for their toxins to be released into the air and groundwater.

Townsend’s project tested for eight hazardous metals: mercury, arsenic, cadmium, barium, silver, selenium, chromium and lead. The lead comes from solder that connects circuits. Townsend said only lead turned up as a problem, with 28 of 38 cell phones tested exceeding the EPA standard of five milligrams of lead per liter.

Last month, California State Assembly members Fran Pavley (D) and Christine Kehoe (D) introduced legislation to require mobile-phone retailers to start recycling programs. Under the bill, phone manufacturers would have to report to the California Integrated Waste Management Board on the hazardous materials contained in their products and on plans to phase them out. In addition, wireless firms would have to inform consumers on where and how to recycle cell phones.

New York and other states are pursuing similar legislation. Legislation in Congress would set a national policy for recycling PCs. Meantime, a number of countries in Europe and Asia have become active in combating electronic waste with new laws and various recycling initiatives. Not all old phones and e-waste get buried in American soil. Some high-tech waste is shipped overseas to poor nations, which attempt to salvage parts or refurbish products under unsupervised conditions-posing health and safety risks for individuals handling equipment.

Environmental groups have made elimination of e-waste a cause celebre.

The mobile-phone industry, which boasts 155 million subscribers today, insists voluntary recycling programs are working. The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association says such programs benefit the environment, community groups and charitable organizations. Mandatory phone recycling would undercut those efforts, according to CTIA.

It is unclear what weight EPA will give to the University of Florida study.

“I can’t say what now we will or will not do,” said Marilyn Goode, an environment protection specialist at EPA.

Goode said EPA management will evaluate the study before any decisions are made.

Later this year, EPA plans to issue new rules encouraging-but not mandating-businesses to recycle computer monitors and TVs rather than disposing of them in landfills.

The process by which EPA and other government agencies use scientific data to craft regulations has become the subject of bitter dispute between the Bush administration and environmentalists.

President Bush’s regulatory czar-John Graham of the Office of Management and Budget-has fashioned a proposal to shore up peer review of scientific studies available to government officials that write regulations. Critics suspect the Bush White House is trying to weaken safety, health and environmental regulations as a favor to businesses.

Others see merit in establishing a regime that helps to avoid conflicts of interest, manipulation of scientific data and vagaries of peer review that exist from one government agency to another.

Graham, who heads OMB’s office of information and regulatory affairs, has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since joining the Bush team. Graham puts a lot of stock in weighing the relative costs and benefits of proposed and existing government regulations.

Graham, previously chief of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, is no stranger to the wireless industry. At the Harvard Center, he helped oversee a $25 million wireless industry-funded research program that he criticized heavily at its end. The study included some findings suggesting cell phones could pose a health risk to consumers. Researchers are trying to repeat the study to check the validity of the results.

In 2000, the Harvard Center issued a report downplaying the relative risks of talking on a cell phone while driving.

The study was underwritten by AT&T Wireless Services Inc. Some government and university studies have found cell-phone use behind the wheel impairs driver concentration and that hands-free headsets do not markedly improve driver safety.

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