How Lead In Recycled Electronics Can Poison Workers' Families

You don't need to go near an e-scrap facility to suffer the harmful effects.
Harrell's children, Jeriyah and Jeremiah.
Harrell's children, Jeriyah and Jeremiah.
Courtesy of Danielle Walker

In 2009, when Anthony Harrell accepted a job at an electronics scrap recycling facility in Cincinnati, he was happy to have found work that he liked and that would let him provide for his wife and two children.

Harrell’s job was to feed discarded computer monitors and televisions to the Angel-Devil, a truck-sized shredding machine that chopped up cathode ray tubes and ground the glass from the screens into powder. He earned $10 per hour for his labor.

After his eight-hour shift, clad in the same skully hat and street clothes he typically wore throughout each day, he would greet his family, waiting in a car outside. His infant daughter Jeriyah was especially eager to be held and hugged, he recalled recently.

He didn’t know that those cuddles were poisoning his baby.

The glass of the cathode ray tubes that Harrell disassembled every day for almost a year contained a huge quantity of lead -- a potent toxin that, if inhaled or ingested, can damage developing brains and organs, and harm adults’ reproductive and renal systems. Even a small dose, if it ends up in a child’s bloodstream, can stunt development and cause lifelong learning problems, doctors say.

Each time Harrell’s children would touch his hair and hands, or hug him after work, they would inadvertently come in contact with the toxic metal, which is difficult to wash off with normal soap. Jeriyah, now 6, takes medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and has a hard time learning and staying focused. Her doctors say her difficulties stem from lead exposure. Her older brother was exposed, too, and both children are now being evaluated for behavioral and attention problems at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, their mother, Danielle Walker, said.

“We have shed a few tears,” Harrell said. “I didn’t think that working on this job would put my kids’ health in danger.”

Most cases of lead poisoning stem from contaminated water, as is the case in the unfolding crisis in Flint, Michigan, or from old, peeling lead-based paint in aging homes or apartment buildings. But experts warn that the risk from dismantled consumer electronic devices, which often contain lead components, is also grave -- and poorly understood.

There are more than 1,400 electronic recycling facilities in the U.S., according to E-Scrap News, an industry publication. Together, they employ an estimated 45,000 people, mostly low-income and recently immigrated workers. In 2011, electronics recycling was a $20 billion industry, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

Harrell’s children are the nation’s first reported victims of take-home lead exposure from an e-scrap facility, according to Nick Newman, the director of the lead clinic at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, which treated them. But occupational hazard experts who have evaluated e-recycling plants in several states are convinced that many more children have been exposed to lead, and are consequently at risk, than have been reported.

The Cincinnati family’s case is “just the tip of the iceberg,” said Diana Ceballos, an industrial hygienist and a visiting scientist at Harvard University.

A worker recycles cathode ray tubes using the Angel-Devil machine at the former 2trg facility in Cincinnati.
A worker recycles cathode ray tubes using the Angel-Devil machine at the former 2trg facility in Cincinnati.
Courtesy of NIOSH

E-recycling is grueling, labor-intensive work. Each year, workers take apart an estimated 4 million tons of discarded electronics by hand. Under rules set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal regulator responsible for worker safety, e-scrap facilities must provide protective clothing and respirators to their employees. They must also train workers to safely handle lead and other hazardous materials.

But enforcement of these rules is lax, said Sarah Westervelt, a policy director with the environmental watchdog group Basel Action Network. Many operators don’t take seriously the risk posed from handling discarded electronics, she said, and as a result they provide little or no training to their workers.

Harrell began working at the recycling plant known as the Kenwood Road facility not long after it opened in the spring of 2009. The owner of the plant was 2trg, an Ohio-based company that also operated plants in Kentucky and New York, according to its website.

Harrell claims that managers never told him the electronics he would handle contained lead. He said he was never told to wear special protective clothing, or to clean his clothing and body before going home.

In November of that year, 2trg invited inspectors from OSHA to review its operations. According to a report issued by the agency, inspectors found a high concentration of lead dust around the Angel-Devil machine, where Harrell worked. The agency recommended that 2trg improve ventilation of the machine and provide respirators, overalls and other protective gear to any workers who interacted with it.

Harrell said he wasn’t aware of the visit, and that he was never told he should wear a respirator.

A few months later, Harrell’s wife noticed that “something wasn’t right” with their daughter. The 9-month-old girl had frequent fevers. A doctor recommended a blood test, Walker said.

The results of that test shocked the young parents. The level of lead in Jeriyah’s blood was almost four times the threshold established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her older brother’s level was three times that threshold.

The Cincinnati Health Department inspected both the family’s apartment and that of their grandmother, where they often visited. There was no evidence of deteriorating lead paint -- the most common source of lead poisoning in children -- in either home. They asked Harrell about his job. When he explained that he dismantled old computers and televisions, the inspectors recommended that he contact OSHA and ask for a workplace inspection.

Inspectors from OSHA arrived at the Kenwood Road facility in June 2010. They cited 2trg for 12 “serious violations,” including failing to provide a changing room for workers, failing to provide showers for workers who routinely handled lead components, failing to post warning signs about the dangers of lead and failing to train workers on how to properly use respirators. OSHA found that workers like Harrell were going home dressed in the same clothes they wore all day while handling hazardous materials. The company was fined $12,000.

Harrell quit soon after. Tests showed that he had high lead levels in his blood, too.

In 2012, two years after that OSHA inspection, the Kenwood Road facility still lacked changing rooms and showers, according to a report issued by inspectors from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the CDC.

In 2013, 2trg shuttered the facility. Soon after, E-Waste Systems, based in Cincinnati, bought out the company. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency later found 6,000 boxes of cathode ray tubes in the plant. A contractor hired to clean up the mess found “lead contamination throughout the warehouse,” according to EPA documents.

In the last three years, at least nine other companies in eight different states have closed up e-recycling facilities, leaving behind piles of lead-containing cathode ray tube glass, according to E-Scrap News.

Carol Weinstein, the former chief executive of 2trg, could not be reached for comment.

Doyle Calvi, a former 2trg environmental health and safety manager, said he was not familiar with Harrell’s case. When asked about the 2010 OSHA inspection, he said that workers wore safety suits, respirators and eyeglasses.

That’s the standard stuff that we were told that we needed to wear," Calvi said.

Regulators have not been able to keep up with the proliferation of e-recycling facilities. In most cases, plants are not inspected until after a complaint comes in.

It’s impossible for OSHA to inspect every business,” said Scott Allen, a spokesman for the agency.

Industry experts also say that OSHA’s standards, even if followed consistently, are not enough to fully protect workers. In particular, OSHA's standard for the acceptable level of airborne lead in a facility was established in the 1970s -- and experts say it's far too high. OSHA does not have a standard for settled lead dust, which can be the source of take-home exposure.

The agency itself has acknowledged that workers are often exposed to dangerous concentrations of lead and other hazardous chemicals because the existing standards are "outdated and inadequate."

“We tolerate that workers are exposed to high-level hazards,” said Newman, of the Cincinnati lead clinic.

Harrell said he is preparing to sue former managers Weinstein and Calvi, along with E-Waste and the temporary staffing agency that helped him find the job. His attorney, Alan Mensh, said he hopes the suit will cause more workers with exposed children to come forward.

Harrell now works for a company that manufactures aircraft parts. If his daughter’s blood lead test hadn’t alerted him to the effects of his job on his children, he never would have thought of quitting, he said.

“I don’t think it’s fair that my daughter didn’t have a chance of a regular life,” Harrell said. “This is something she will have to deal with for the rest of her life because of me.”

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