Oladele Ogunseitan is working to prevent pollutants in everyday electronic products from contaminating landfills and endangering public health. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Getting the lead out

E-waste expert Oladele Ogunseitan seeks to eradicate toxins from cell phones, computers and other common electronic products.

Oladele Ogunseitan picks up a cellphone and tosses it into a small wood chipper in his UC Irvine lab. Is he conducting a wacky experiment? Overreacting to one too many dropped calls? Actually, Ogunseitan grinds up old phones for a purely scientific cause: He’s studying toxic electronic waste.

Chair of the population health & disease prevention department and professor of public health and social ecology, Ogunseitan is an international expert on environmental health sciences. He’s currently exploring ways to prevent pollutants in cellphones, computers, calculators, fluorescent lamps and other everyday products from contaminating the landfills and endangering public health.

“We’re not just showing that there are real scientific reasons for not throwing cellphones in the trash because they contain lead or mercury. We’re trying to keep toxins from entering the environment through these devices in the first place,” says Ogunseitan, director of UCI’s Research & Education in Green Materials program, part of a multicampus UC effort to develop alternative components for consumer products.

In his research, Ogunseitan uses a curious mix of high-tech tools and recycled odds and ends, including an old Pepsi box that holds phone parts and a baking dish that’s clearly seen its last brownies: It contains a poisonous stew of shredded and dismantled electronics.

“This dish is loaded with chemicals that aren’t good for you,” Ogunseitan says, picking out the remnants of a keyboard. “Underneath these keys is leaded solder. Many products we don’t think about, like small printer cartridges, compact discs or phone chargers, contain toxins, and they usually end up in the trash.”

He and his student researchers simulate a worst-case scenario in which e-waste sits in a leaky landfill and is exposed to acid rain over a 10-year period. They first shred the electronics in a powerful, $18,000 grinder, then mix the resultant particles in mildly acidic water.

“These products leach into the soil,” says Ogunseitan, swirling a beaker filled with gray flecks so it resembles an evil snow globe. “We find hundreds of chemicals in these experiments, including notorious ones like nickel, cadmium and mercury.”

Such toxins have been linked to myriad public health problems, he says: “Lead can cause kidney failure and high blood pressure in adults and cognitive defects in children; there’s no reason to have it in any consumer product. Cadmium damages the liver and kidneys. Mercury triggers neurological defects. Some substances we find are carcinogenic. You don’t want these in your groundwater.”

Ogunseitan’s goal is to substitute benign materials for contaminants. His lab, for example, is working on biodegradable flax to replace the toxin-coated fiberglass commonly used in electronic wiring boards.

“Professor Ogunseitan has put UCI on the map when it comes to green electronics,” says Jean-Daniel Saphores, a civil & environmental engineering associate professor who collaborates with Ogunseitan (related story). “He’s making the electronics industry greener and protecting public health, not only in the U.S. but in developing countries where a lot of our e-waste is going.”

Ogunseitan began studying environmental health as a college student in his native Nigeria. “I was struck by a news story about fishermen putting pesticides in streams to make the fish sluggish and easier to catch,” he says. “I did my thesis on pesticides’ effect on natural ecosystems.”

Ogunseitan joined UCI in 1992. Since 2005, he’s been principal investigator of a National Science Foundation-funded project studying how industry, recyclers and the government can address the e-waste issue. In April, he was appointed to the new Green Ribbon Science Panel of the California Green Chemistry Initiative, which aims to reduce or remove toxic chemicals from products sold in the state.

“Since I started this work, the e-waste problem has grown,” Ogunseitan says. “The electronics revolution has been wonderful, but it has to be renovated. If we begin now, we can change manufacturing, regulations and consumer behavior and nip this problem in the bud — before we damage the environment, and our health.”

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