Toxic Travelling: Lead's Vicious Circle


Edward Burtynsky: Circuit Boards, Guiyu, Guangdong Province, 2004

The US has ordered recalls of cheap jewelery from China, much of it marketed to teenagers and children, because it is made from toxic lead. According to the Wall Street Journal, lead alloy remains a favored material for costume-jewelry makers; It is plentiful and cheap, often selling for half the price of zinc alloy, the other metal mixture commonly used to make costume jewelry. Lead has a relatively low melting point, which makes it easier to work with, and lends heft to inexpensive jewelry. While China sets limits on lead content in toys (hah!) , there is no regulation of jewelery.

That is bad enough; two recent studies indicate that the lead comes from e-waste, or scrap electronics shipped from the US; there are serious miles on these earrings.


Edward Burtynsky: Ewaste Sorting, Zeguo, Zhejiang Province, 2004

"This 'return-to-sender' issue is really important," says Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an organization in San Jose, Calif., focused on the environmental impact of the high-tech industry. Mr. Smith points out an added irony: Many of the electronics consumed in the U.S. are manufactured in China in the first place. "Talk about globalization," he says. "If you drew a map of this, the arrows would go in lots of different directions."

The EPA doesn't regulate the export of waste, and China doesn't regulate the use of lead in jewelery. "It's too costly to make lead-free products," says [factory] owner Wang Qinjuan. "Chinese products have to be sold cheaply in foreign markets, or they are not competitive."

So the lead takes three trips across the Pacific; first as electronics, then as e-waste, then as toxic jewelery. what a vicious circle. ::Wall Street Journal

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