Pollution Prevention Practices in Oregon's Electronics Industry

By Jones, Cynthia L.; Harding, Anna K. | Journal of Environmental Health, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

Pollution Prevention Practices in Oregon's Electronics Industry


Jones, Cynthia L., Harding, Anna K., Journal of Environmental Health


Introduction

In 1990, Congress passed the Pollution Prevention Act that mandated industries to implement pollution prevention programs to decrease the amount and toxicity of hazardous products used in production processes (1). Pollution prevention reduces waste at the source, which decreases the cost of treatment, and also eliminates the undesirable practice of transferring pollution from one medium to another. Pollution prevention strengthens economic competitiveness by using raw materials more efficiently; thus, it promotes economic growth while protecting the environment (2).

With the implementation of pollution prevention practices, some manufacturers have attempted substituting less harmful chemicals in the production process. Although these substitutions are honest attempts at reducing pollution, cases exist in which the substituted chemical (which is advertised as being environmentally benign) is actually no less toxic than the original material (3). For example, Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were considered safe for 40 years. Nontoxic, nonflammable, and noncorrosive, they replaced hazardous substances such as ammonia and sulfur dioxide. Scientists, however, discovered that CFCs were not benign; rather, the chemicals were rising into the atmosphere and insidiously eating a hole in the earth's protective ozone layer (3). In addition, existing legislation does not clearly define what criteria must be met to label a product as "green" or "environmentally friendly" (4).

On a nationwide basis, the electronics industry generates a large amount of hazardous waste due to the use of solvents and heavy metals in the manufacturing process (1). The industry is characterized by the use of highly toxic compounds that are routinely handled by employees (5). For example, potentially hazardous materials utilized by the semiconductor industry include dopant gases, photoresist solvents, organic solvents, and hydrofluoric acid (6). Two commonly used chemicals in the making of computer chips are diethylene glycol dimethyl ether (DIGLM) and ethylene glycol monoethyl ether acetate (ECA). These photoresist solvents have recently been linked to miscarriages and other reproductive problems in chip factory workers (7,8).

In Oregon, the electronics industry has recently been identified by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as one of the top five polluters in the state of Oregon when measured in pounds of pollution produced (9). Despite the data suggesting that Oregon's electronics industry produces large quantities of hazardous waste, little is known about the industry's interest and/or involvement in switching to less polluting practices. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to identify pollution prevention strategies that are currently being used in the electronics industry of Oregon, and to assess the industry's interest in switching to less hazardous practices.

Methods

A survey querying pollution prevention practices was mailed to 180 electronics firms in Oregon. These firms were selected from listings in Oregon phone directories and from the American Electronics Association membership registry. Some firms were included in both listings, so a final list of 192 businesses was compiled after cross-checking both lists and deleting duplicate businesses. The survey was pilot tested with 12 of the 192 organizations, which were chosen at random from the final list. Those in the pilot group were excluded from data analysis. No changes were made in the actual content of the questionnaire, but slight modifications were made in the introductory, letter as a result of the pilot study. The revised survey, cover letter, and self-addressed stamped return envelope was mailed as a unit to the safety engineer or manager of the remaining 180 businesses on the list. Respondents were asked to return the completed survey within two weeks, and a follow-up postcard was mailed to those firms not responding by the given deadline. …

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