Manufacturing Expert Explains Foxconn Environmental Impact

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Premiere Date: 
August 11, 2017

Manufacturing Expert Explains Foxconn Environmental Impact

Weighing in on the environmental impacts of Foxconn is heavy metals expert Peter Adriaens from the University of Michigan. He talks about the potential dangers of manufacturing with the heavy metals necessary for LCD screens, a type of manufacturing uncommon in the state. Adriaens says many of the specific metals used are bioaccumulative and may stay in organisms for the rest of their lives.

Episode Transcript

Frederica Freyberg:

With so much talk about the dollars and cents of the Foxconn deal, we wondered what the manufacture of electronics and LCD screens entails. It's a far cry from rust belt smoke stack-type industry. But is it clean? What by-products could result? For that we turn to the University of Michigan. UW-Madison experts pointed us to Peter Adriaens, professor of civil and environmental engineering. He joins us from Ann Arbor, and thanks very much for doing so. 

Peter Adriaens:

Thanks for having me. 

Frederica Freyberg:

This Foxconn plant will produce LCD screens as we've said. And you say heavy metals are key components of tech manufacturing of this sort. How so? 

Peter Adriaens:

Yes, that's correct. So LCD screens are liquid crystal displays essentially are liquid crystals that are encased between two glass plates. The liquid crystals themselves have organic solvents in them. Then, there is back lighting that is required for a screen like that. That has mercury in it, and there's a power supply which has heavy metals like cadmium, chromium, zinc and copper. So there's quite a few heavy metals used in this.

Frederica Freyberg:

How would those heavy metals be contained or discarded? 

Peter Adriaens:

During the manufacturing process, the excess materials that are not used in the manufacturing would be stored into waste bins or waste drums and ultimately be processed off plant.

Frederica Freyberg:

What happens if they are released into the soil or water and is that a possibility?  

Peter Adriaens:

That is definitely a distinct possibility. The waste materials essentially are liquid materials. They usually get boiled down into what we call a "waste cake" of materials, so like a sludge that has heavy metals in it. The question is what Foxconn plans on doing with that. Is that going to get stored in a storage facility? Or where are they going to take this? But yes, leakage out of drums is a fairly common occurrence.

Frederica Freyberg:

Are these dangerous pollutants? 

Peter Adriaens:

It depends on which one you are talking about. The Benzene definitely has long-term health effects including birth defects, cancer and other types of effects, breathing impacts. The heavy metals, once they get into your body, once they get into the environmental ecosystem are there to stay for a very long time so they are what we call bio-accumulative. They accumulate in the body and they stay there pretty much for the rest of your life. Basically, you can't get rid of them. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Can the water used in the process be cleaned and returned to the lake where it will be drawn from? 

Peter Adriaens:

There are definitely processes by which you can try to clean them to some sort of cleanup standards where you can clean the manufacturing waters to a standard where they can be discharged again, but I'm not sure what processes are actually in place, and the bill seems to indicate there is no monitoring required on the water quality. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Speaking of that, there are these relaxations of environmental rules in this bill. What is your overall reaction to the relaxation of those rules in this bill that is now being ushered through our legislature? 

Peter Adriaens:

Almost seems a little excessive here, and I'm very used to seeing what states do to try to attract businesses-- anything from changing zoning laws and what not. I've never seen them relax the environmental regulations on the manufacturing operations. Definitely they would be required to do less than U.S. operations in the same state. 

Frederica Freyberg:

There's specific language in the bill that says our Department of Natural Resources would not require a permit for Foxconn to do things including, as I understand it, depositing material into navigable water, changing the course of streams, and enlarging an artificial water body that connects to a navigable waterway. What does all that mean to you? 

Peter Adriaens:

In normal business operations you have to seek permits. Permits for any kind of discharge. There's conditions around these discharge. It seems like this bill is essentially completely getting rid of all state required legislative permitting. They argue the federal permits apply, but essentially, they're getting a free ride on all the state permits. It's very unusual. 

Frederica Freyberg:

So you say it's unusual, but what about that fact that federal rules would still apply? Do those not protect the citizens? 

Peter Adriaens:

Federal rules definitely do protect the citizens, but the reason why we have state specific laws from DNR or DEQ is to adapt the federal rules to the location or geographic specific conditions such as Wisconsin having Great Lakes, the different kinds of industries that operate in the different states. So we need to adapt any kind of rule that exists out there to the local business and industrial operations. That's why we do need state laws in addition to the federal laws. 

Frederica Freyberg:

All of this discussion of heavy metals, and other kinds of materials and storage of those, should we be concerned when you see the language in this bill that is going through the legislature and the relaxations in it? 

Peter Adriaens:

I think there's definitely cause for concern for a couple of different reasons. One you look at Foxconn's track record in China, and definitely have been major discharges both in air and in water from the manufacturing operations. So precautionary principle would say yes, we do need rules. So I think there's cause for concern. The second cause for concern is it really opens up and becomes a slippery slope. It opens up the opportunity of other electronics manufacturing industries or other industries that even do a minor portion of electronics manufacturing to say look, there's a precedent, and we do not need environmental regulations. We want to move to the state of Wisconsin. So there's definitely cause for concern. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Professor Peter Adriaens, University of Michigan. Thanks for joining us with your expertise. 

Peter Adriaens:

Thank you very much.

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