NIOSH Report: Prison Computer Recycling Plant Plagued with Heavy Metals

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) officials recently found that staff and inmates working at a prison industry computer recycling plant are being exposed to concentrations of lead and cadmium far above permissible limits, according to a report released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

NIOSH officials urged an immediate shutdown of computer recycling operations located in eastern Ohio at the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution and strict new anti-contamination safeguards if the factory is to reopen.

The report was written based upon sampling this February for lead and cadmium in various parts of the Elkton electronics recycling industry complex, and was submitted to the Justice Department Office of Inspector General as part of its system-wide review of all the recycling centers. That review was sparked by a whistleblower disclosure from a safety manager, Leroy Smith, documenting similar dangers in the federal prison at Atwater, located in central California.

The Elkton report noted that airborne lead and cadmium, both dangerous heavy metals, accumulated at alarmingly concentrations inside factory air filters and ventilation systems:

"The data from the 'filter change-out' operation showed that that airborne exposures can exceed by a factor of 450 times the concentration adopted by OSHA as the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for cadmium and over 50 times the PEL for lead,” the report read. “Even though workers performing this operation wore respiratory protection equipment…these excessive exposures will exceed the Protection Factor afforded by this type of respirator."

Computer Breaking Operation Causes Contamination

Most of the heavy metal contamination comes from inmates breaking up computers with hammers in "the cathode ray tube glass breaking operation." Even outside the glass breaking area where exposures were relatively low, the health review found lead and cadmium residues on work surfaces where workers are not wearing protective equipment. In one factory section, "one [dust] sample…was as high as 16 percent lead."

"Ever since Leroy Smith went public with his revelations about conditions at Atwater, every one of the six other federal prisons with computer recycling plants should have been on notice that they are putting the health of their own people at risk," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization assisted Smith with his 2004 disclosure which was validated by the U.S Office of Special Counsel.

Staff members also may have routinely exposed their families to dust they carried home in their clothing. While the report recommended that an immediate plan be "implemented in order to protect staff, inmates, contractors and the environment from lean and cadmium residues" it did not urge that staff and inmates, who have worked at the Elkton recycling center for years since it began operations in 1998, undergo medical check-ups and long-term health monitoring.

"Long-term exposure to lead and cadmium, even at low levels, can be expected to contribute to health problems down the line," Ruch added, noting that the current review by the Justice Department, which is in charge of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, has been going on for more than 20 months. "In addition to halting any further contamination, the Justice Department needs to oversee thorough health check-ups for everyone who may have been exposed at any of these institutions."

"Instead of behaving responsibly, the Bureau of Prisons has looked the other way, while the federal prison industry authority, UNICOR, opened additional 'computer-recycling' facilities without proper health safeguards in place," said Mary Dryovage, Leroy Smith's attorney, noting that Smith has filed a new whistleblower retaliation complaint since being transferred to a Tucson correctional facility. "The whistleblower laws need to be expanded to impose appropriate penalties to discourage official lawbreakers."

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