One of the most oft-repeated claims about cast-out "e-Waste" is that the CRTs are full of cadmium phosphors.
Some time ago, I was researching MSDS sheets for our recycling facility's Environmental Health and Safety manual, and to answer questions for one of our monthy plantwide safety meetings.
Here is some interesting correspondence from an expert in Cadmium phosphors, retired professor Robert Dodds of University California San Diego.
"I don’t know why they would be worried about the Cadmium in the phosphor because I doubt there are any TVs that are 40 years old that haven’t been scrapped by now. At most, there might be a total of 4 to 5 grams of green phosphor on the tube. The tubes are also easy to tell because the they don’t have the carbon matrix around the phosphor and the phosphor is in a “dot matrix” rather than the “block matrix”. Besides that the Cadmium is present in a low energy crystalline structure, hexagonal sulfide, that can only be released by strong acid which would also result in the generation of hydrogen sulfide which is a much greater health problem than cadmium."
And some follow up:
"The Black & White TV phosphor, a blend of blue, green, and red phosphors, had cadmium in it and probably had it in low levels until it was totally replaced by color tubes. Both B&W as well as color used the old Red phosphor with cadmium at about 70% until 1965 when the rear earth reds (Yttrium Vanadate : Europium) came out. B&W shifted to a low Cd phosphor and used a blue, and two different yellow greens both of which contained Cd. This was how they matched the which color temp they wanted. The green phosphor for color TV had Cadmium until the No-Cad green came into use in around 1973 but phased in over about three years. RCA was the first to use No-Cad because they were the ones that discovered it and mass produced the powder until the other vendors figured out the process. The domestic tube makers changes slowly so the old tubes might have Cd. You can tell from the color of the unlit screen, the no-cad is lighter in color and not as yellow. The no-cad green also has a longer “afterglow” (persistence) when the energy is removed so the screen will have a slight greenish glow when the tube is turned off. The Sony tubes made at San Diego never had any cadmium in them and probably the same can be said for those from Japan after 1973 or about that time. I don’t know the exact year but Japan banned Cd in the phosphors in the early 1970’s. "
I shared the correspondence with an OEM engineer, who noted:
note that at 5 grams and a 50 kg TV, then the absolute maximum concentration could be 1 ppm, ONLY IF all of the Cd dissolved during the TCLP leach procedure. The EPA says at 1 ppm its D006 haz waste. However, only a small portion of the the Cd dissolves - in other words, even the old CRTs with Cd won't fail for Cd.
Summary: I am an environmentalist. But when environmentalists use the same tactics as anti-communists like Senator Joe McCarthy, we waste valuable resources, and shut down legitimate end markets (like the Samsung Corning CRT glass-to-glass operation, which will turn to mined sources of material).
To be fair, Yttrium is not child's play, it's also a restricted substance because, like asbestos, it can cause lung cancer if you inhale it. Maybe, some could argue, it really doesn't matter if we all repeated that cadmium phosphors were in the CRTs, since anyway there's yttrium which, while not listed on the Restriction of Hazardous Waste Substances Directive, as cadmium is, is also not safe. Yttrium is also present in phosphors in the lastest LED color display technologies. In almost immeasurable amounts.
If you research cadmium, the deaths and toxicity poisoning are concentrated - surprise - in mining and refining communities.
Again, I researched this because our plant EH and S requires MSDS sheets on everything we handle, and I was using the MSDS sheets for different CRT manufacturers and dagnabit, could not find cadmium in ANY of the ones I searched. But we have had several safety meetings where staff are concerned about the "witches brew" of toxic elements in the mostly inert substances they handle. We take each inquiry seriously, and we make discoveries (like Yttrium), but we also have become more focused on the real dangers at the recycling plant - such as forklift driving. Anyone with decades of recycling experience knows that the forklift is the third rail in the operation.
So my point is that while the alarm was appropriate when th subject first came up ten years ago, that it has been fed by a kind of self-perpetuating sense of alarm which accepted cadmium danger as fact, and accepted cadmium phosphors in CRT glass as a serious issue. This same kind of rumor-reaction has created noise or "false positives" in other places, and it infects R2 (ink cartridges are now a focus material? even though ink cartidges have no toxics?) as well as other places.
The good news, after a decade of articles and news stories, university researchers have a wide open field. So much innuendo has been printed, you can do a little digging anywhere and find that the "ewaste" facts is a house of cards. The harm is in mining, the "recycling scare" was interesting as a man-bites-dog (recycling is bad??) headline. At the same time, we need researchers to focus on what the real dangers are in the e-waste field. Some are concerned that if I deflate the concerns in the community, that the result will be muddled, with e-scrap companies returning to do whatever they want, abandoning many of the improvements (which our EH and S meetings symbolize) achieved thanks to the attention brought to our field by the Watchdogs.
It's a balancing act, when to clap and backslap with the environmental groups, and when to push them to sharpen their own tools. Basel Action Network wrote a letter to the Malaysia government, similar to the letter they wrote the Indonesian government about CRTs in sealed sea containers from Brockton. The result was the shutdown of the Samsung Corning CRT furnace purchase order in Klang Malaysia with this letter, which informed the Malaysia Department of Environment that phosphors were toxic. (Here also is a link to a press release refuting my claim that they sent the letter in the previous link). They thought they were doing something good. The denial letter (protesting my post a year ago, that they had something to do with Samsung closing to USA glass - but not other OECD nations) was a little hair-splitting... more of a parsing of words than a denial that their intervention led to the end of free glass-to-glass CRT tube recycling out of the USA. The point? Let's get this out in the open and figure out if we, as an environmental community, oppose a Korean electronics manufacturing giant from using recycled feedstock in their Malaysia manufacturing plant.
My point is not against BAN, though I think they represent a thin-skinned group of self-righteous watchdogs who are not bigoted, but fail to follow through on projects like the "California Compromise" letter ( I would paraphrase, in my own words, that they are saying we agree with you Robin but you said things we don't like in your blog so we are no longer going to stop the CA system from destroying millions of good units, which are replaced in the market by a mix of good an bad units. We never would have looked at this at all without your hounding, but now we find we don't like the hounding, so the Compromise will languish and it's your fault. The mean thing I said was in defense of the Factories of Color which are not primitive, so defending a friend, it seems is an attack on the attacker. See Narcissus blog).
It is easy to assume that defending the exports is a self-serving task. But I am looking at their "friends" and advisors. Is it possible that someone with a USA washing investment put them up to it, fed them the info? I certainly don't think BAN killed the market to be mean. Someone in the USA who washed phosphors didn't like that a huge Fortune 100 company like Samsung was washing phosphors... they fed BAN disinformation about cadmium in the phosphors, and BAN reacted like a watchdog sicked on a mailman. Is it possible a friend in MA told them to follow CRTR containers from Brockton, which were sold to Gordon Chiu (the same buyer of e-scrap from an e-Steward, uncovered by the Sacramento Bee)? Can you say "conspiracy theory"?
No, I don't dislike BAN. I am happy they hired Lauren Roman, that they are lifting the hood and taking on more challenging questions, and I believe that the organization will mature as a result. But the companies which want stuff shredded (planned obsolescence in hindsight), the companies who put phosphor washing into the USA and were scared by Malaysia capacity, and the companies which invested in capital-intensive shredding equipment (like Lauren's old company, MaSeR) are businesses with "self-serving" profit motives, just like the SKD businesses and USA export based businesses. The entire R2 debate was consensus between groups with vested interests... except there was not a single Geek of Color at the table. E-Stewards is being developed between an even smaller group, a minority of companies which was willing to abandon R2 Stakeholder discussions to develop a "stricter" standard - stricter as in lower reuse rates.
So back to the subject... Can we all just agree that almost no CRTs contain cadmium phosphors, and identify the few from the 1960s-70s which still do, and set up special risk handling procedures for those (like th 1978 microwave ovens with PCB capacitors)? Is asking for this going to be viewed as an "attack blog" again? I hope that the opening of research quotes from professors, from a long time ago, and sharing them with the environmental community, is seen as evidence that I'm trying to move the conversation forward.
Most CRTs are reused in big nice factories, not primitive yoke-hacking African dumps. Let's clean up the used electronics export business, not shut it down.
Who is being cowardly? The recycling company which documents that it does export to certain Asians, and discloses the exports on the web to the world? Or the big premium E-Stewards who post agreement, invest in shredders, and then export the exact same materials to the exact same countries? Who's your best friend, even if you just haven't figured that out yet?