Remember that monstrous old television that sat in your living room and was almost as thick as it was tall and wide? Those old-school TVs were bad for the brain -- and not just due to the programming. No, the big TVs of yesteryear were also huge containers of toxic lead. Their cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and leaded glass carried as much as five pounds of the heavy metal, which has been linked to brain damage in children, reduced IQs, tremors and cancer. Unfortunately, those boxy old TVs never really went away.
The EPA estimates that of the 704.9 million CRT televisions sold in the U.S. since 1980, roughly 42.4 percent are still in use, reports Popular Mechanics. But as U.S. owners replace them with newer, sleeker models, only 10 percent of these discarded CRTs are recycled. Disposing of those toxic TVs has been a huge problem in the U.S. and abroad. And in the developing world, sales of cheaply made CRT televisions have remained strong despite the environmental concerns. Now, CRT sales are plunging fast and it finally appears that the end of the CRT era is close at hand. Soon, we will mark the passing of one of the worst contributors of lead contamination to the environment in the age of consumer electronics.
According to research published on Sept. 25 by tech consultancy DisplaySearch, shipments of CRT televisions are plummeting far faster than analysts had expected, and the end of all CRT sales is likely only a few years away. Last year, worldwide CRT sales finally fell behind worldwide LCD sales, but only by a single percentage point. This shift was due in part to dramatic price declines in flat-panel LCD televisions and computer monitors, which carry far less lead. "The transition from CRT-based TVs to flat-panel TVs is largely complete in developed regions worldwide, like North America, Western Europe and Japan," said Hisakazu Torii, Vice President of TV Research at DisplaySearch. "Now the transition to flat is accelerating in emerging markets like China, and we are seeing sales of CRT TVs fall faster than flat-panel TVs can grow."
Torii further reported that CRT sales would likely be falling even faster if it were not for significant supply constraints on flat-panel TV production. The approaching end of the CRT era is particularly good news for China, where standards for landfills are lax and black market consumer electronics recycling operations have poisoned entire regions of the Middle Kingdom. Unscrupulous or unaware U.S. recycling companies have collected millions of CRT monitors and shipped them to China for cheap disposal. As a result, a significant chunk of what had been a U.S. lead problem has been moved abroad, where it impacts impoverished workers who have little access to health care or medical screening for heavy metal poisoning.
While much of the lead disaster has been moved offshore, the remaining legacy in the U.S. is still frighteningly formidable. Each year, something like 25 million CRT televisions and computer monitors are tossed out by Americans, and the majority of them remain in the U.S. Not surprisingly, by some estimates, CRT devices account for roughly 50 percent of all lead entering U.S. landfills. Fears of toxic CRT contamination drove California, Minnesota, and other states to ban the disposal of these devices in landfills. While testing the overall impact of the lead on the U.S. environment is difficult, limited studies have suggested that enough lead is leaching from landfills to turn the soil and water around them into toxic waste.
Which is why the impending demise of the CRT manufacturing industry is so important. The curtain is closing on a period of blithe and willful ignorance of a massive metal overhang that will haunt the world for decades to come. Among consumer electronics products, CRTs were probably the most environmentally destructive. Good riddance, you hulking, ugly boxes.
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