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Perverse Outcomes: Part 2: Technological Detritus

Stanley Feld M.D.,FACP,MACE

We could look in many areas to see how they result in unintentional perverse outcomes. The outcomes affect the health of the nation and our healthcare costs. One area of unintentional consequences is the creation of toxic waste from obsolete technical hardware.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of electronic device waste. There are millions of outdated cell phones and computer equipment disposed of each year. Electronic waste or “e-waste” is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, with 3.96 billion pounds of consumer e-waste discarded in the US alone in 2000. To make matters worse, e-waste is also highly toxic. According to US EPA, e-waste is the source of some 70% of heavy metals in US landfills. The volume of computers expected to become obsolete over the coming decade contain at least 1 billion pounds of lead, 1.9 billion pounds of cadmium and 400,000 pounds of mercury. Often dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators, these materials from computers and other electronics can be released to the environment, creating a massive public health hazard. Lead and mercury do not disappear and end up in our rivers and lakes. The mercury and cadmium affect the food chain and ultimately humans.


Chris Jordan’s large-scale color photographs portray the detritus of American consumption. Gaining access to some of the country’s largest industrial waste facilities, Jordan photographs the refuse of consumer culture (e.g., diodes, cell phone chargers, cigarette butts, circuit boards) on an immense scale. Spanning up to ten feet wide, Jordan’s prints are at once abstract and detailed. This is where creative innovation and recycling would be very important to the future health of our children and grandchildren.
An easy thing to do is to require businesses to recycle all the lead, mercury and cadmium. This would decrease the need to produce more lead, mercury and cadmium. It would not only decrease the pollution to the environment it would preserve our natural resources.

We are harming our health while having no idea of the impact to the healthcare system costs. Shouldn’t someone take a leadership position and solve this problem? EPA means Environmental Protection Agency. We need some protection.

If we were able to decrease the complication rate of chronic diseases by 50% we would be saving at least $115 billion dollars in healthcare costs. If we were able to prevent chronic disease the savings would be at least twice that amount. The billions saved would start adding up. However, the industries and subsequent jobs created to service this waste are threatened. They will try to do everything they can to prevent their services from being eliminated. The cost savings would lead to a decrease in the price of insurance. The uninsured could afford to purchase medical insurance.

If we want to do something to increase the health of the nation and decrease the cost of the healthcare system we will have to work very hard as individuals to eradicate these perverse outcomes. There are strong economic reasons that the harmful actions were instituted. There are strong vested interest resistance against any drastic change.

The only way we have seen change occur is by individuals being proactive. We must make our wishes clear to the politicians and policy makers. It can be done. In Texas, we have stopped the ‘dirty coal plants’ for the moment. We are in the process of stopping the governor from giving Texas back to Spain after fighting hard for Texas independence in 1848. The Trans Texas Corridor consists of an 8000 miles by one half a mile wide of toll road. The 8000 mile by one half mile wide land will be confiscated from Texans for a road. Spanish investors will get the contract to make policy. The Spanish investors only have to put 20% down. The remaining funding will come from the Texas retirement funds. The land use including restaurant, hotels, and gas stations will be by Spanish investing. Governor Perry’s policies have frozen out all Texas companies from bidding on the road. Governor Perry has refused to listen to the protests of the Texas farmers losing their land.

The Texas legislature finally had the courage to present bills to stop the governor after the peoples’ protest. Presently, the governor has threatened to veto the legislature’s bills. The people have to remount their protest to overcome Governor Perry’s veto.

Many people in large cities have no idea of what is going on. It took a husband and wife (farmers and working people) to set up a web site and network the people in Texas to protest. Linda and David Stall are a husband and wife team who made it clear to me that in this internet era ordinary people have the power to turn things around in our complex and opaque political society in which deals are made daily that do not represent the interests of the people.

We have to follow the Stall’s example in order to expose these perverse and unwanted outcomes affecting our health to the public. The first step is public awareness of the possible affects and then help the public demand that the problem be solved.

In my last blog I did not link the reference to Newt Gingrich turning green. I apologize.

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