Computer recycling exposes prison to toxic chemicals

A prison recycling old computer terminals is under investigation for exposing both prison staff and inmates to harmful levels of toxic materials, according to documents released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Dangers flagged by the prison's own staff have been removed from the response the prison made to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, which is conducting the review.

Named UNICOR, a federal prison industry authority in California has operated a computer recycling plant at Atwater penitentiary since 2002 but the operation has been plagued by safety problems and shutdowns. Six other federal prisons have similar computer recycling plants.

In late December, the prison's own staff filed a complaint, claiming that:

  • Particles of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium, were released when inmate workers broke the glass cathode ray tubes during shipping and disassembling
  • The UNICOR factory at Atwater provided an open food service in the contaminated work areas
  • Neither prison staff nor inmates were informed of health risks, no training on handling contaminants had been provided, and blood and urine monitoring was incomplete

    In his initial draft response to OSHA, the warden at Atwater acknowledged many of these problems. The Federal Bureau of Prisons headquarters, however, removed most of admissions of fault from its final response, sent out in February 2005.

    Institution staff at Atwater immediately protested the changes that the warden had made, and challenged the accuracy of the final report.

    "The concern is not only about prisoners but about staff who go home with toxic dust on their clothes and risk spreading contamination to their families," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "Samples taken from skin, clothing, floors and work surfaces have shown dangerous levels of hazardous dust. Recycling computer parts is inherently a dirty business but it does not have to be a deadly one."

    Over recent months, both the State of California and international computer company Dell have cancelled their computer recycling contracts with UNICOR, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also suspended its contract last month.

    "At a time when budgets are getting thinner, the temptation to cut corners and put workers at risk becomes even greater," Ruch concluded. "At the very least, there needs to be an independent investigation into what is going on at Atwater."

    By Jane Kettle

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