Dec. 7, 1998 Writer: Aaron Hoover
Source: Tim Townsend, (352) 392-0846
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- A University of Florida study has determined cathode ray tubes inside television sets and computer monitors contain enough lead to be considered hazardous waste, a finding that may spur officials in Florida and elsewhere to forbid or restrict the current practice of dumping televisions and monitors in landfills.
The results of the UF College of Engineering study come as Americans may be poised to throw away hundreds of millions of TV sets and monitors as digital television becomes popular and people continue to upgrade to ever-faster, ever-cheaper computers.
"I think the study for the very first time really gives conclusive data that the glass from cathode ray tubes does contain enough lead to be considered hazardous," said Tim Townsend, an assistant professor of environmental engineering sciences who did the study. "It's always been something that was anecdotally discussed, but for the most part there was no data anywhere that actually said it."
Townsend, whose study was funded by the Florida Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management, will present his findings next week at a Florida Department of Environmental Protection-sponsored workshop on computer and electronic equipment waste management in Orlando.
Cathode ray tubes in Florida, and almost ever other state, currently are classified as ordinary household waste. The exception is Massachusetts, which recently banned the tubes from landfills. Excessive lead poses a problem in landfills because it can leach into groundwater or, in the case of lined landfills, it may require increased leachate treatment.
Florida environmental officials are pondering what actions to take in the wake of Townsend's findings, but changes are likely, said Raoul Clarke, an environmental administrator at the Department of Environmental Protection in Tallahassee.
"At this point, the disposal of cathode ray tubes is not an acute environmental problem, since most of these products are in storage," Clarke said. "At the state level, we have to come up with some kind of policy, guidelines or criteria for management of TV sets and monitors."
Cathode ray tubes are intentionally infused with lead to shield against harmful X-rays generated in the picture-making process, Townsend said.
He and environmental engineering graduate student Steve Musson collected 36 monitors, crushed the cathode ray tubes, then subjected the contents to the Environmental Protection Agency's standard toxicity test known as the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure. The test involves mixing the crushed tubes with an acid solution to simulate leaching conditions which may exist under landfill operations.
With 21 of the crushed tubes, the resulting leachate exceeded the hazardous waste standard of 5 milligrams of lead per liter, with concentrations averaging 18.5 milligrams per liter, according to a draft research report Townsend submitted to the state. The highest concentrations were found in the neck of the tube, the part farthest from the screen, with 30 necks resulting in enough lead pollution to be considered hazardous, the report says.
No one knows how many TV sets and monitors exist in Florida, but national estimates are high. In 1996, there were more than 300 million TV sets and monitors in the U.S., Townsend's report says. The average household has four TV sets, Clarke said.
There is limited recycling of the screens in Florida and elsewhere, but the bulk of televisions and monitors are thrown away. One study predicts consumers will fill landfills with as many as 55 million computer monitors by 2005, according to Townsend's report.
Townsend said his findings provide "a regulatory tool" that will empower state officials to foster recycling efforts or otherwise reduce the number of landfill-bound televisions and monitors. "Anytime we can minimize the amount of heavy metal such as lead going into the environment in either a landfill or incinerator, that's progress," he said.
Clarke said Florida officials are discussing new TV- and monitor-recycling programs and encouraging existing recycling businesses to expand, among other options. Florida residents, he said, may be asked to dispose of old televisions and monitors at county household hazardous waste collection centers located in 49 of Florida's 67 counties.
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