Photo: Pancreatic tumor cells (light brown); credit: Kenneth P. Olive
Chemicals associated with the production of computers and other electronic equipment can be present in high levels in patients suffering from pancreatic cancer, the disease that Steve Jobs was diagnosed with in 2004.
Over the past decade, awareness and concern about computer chemicals and other related components, such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, benzene and hydrochloric acid, have increased. The European Union, for example, now restricts hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment. Apple, as for PC manufacturers, admits to receiving criticism from environmental organizations, and now calls itself "a greener Apple."
Despite such efforts, computers are still full of toxins, and many older electronic devices remain in homes and businesses. One pervasive and potentially dangerous component is cadmium, which should be carefully recycled. This soft, silver-white metal is in paints, alloys, cathode ray tubes, and more. It's perhaps best known for use in nickel-cadmium batteries, which deliver a lot of power for the money and are rechargeable.
Cadmium also appears to be directly tied to pancreatic cancer.
The northeast Nile Delta region of Egypt exhibits a high incidence of early-onset pancreatic cancer. This region is one of the most polluted areas of Egypt, with the pollutants often winding up in soil and affecting farm workers. Researchers conducted a study to explore the possible connection between cadmium and the often deadly cancer.
Alison Kriegel of Tulane University Health Sciences Center and her colleagues assessed blood cadmium levels of 31 newly diagnosed pancreatic cancer patients and 52 hospital comparison subjects from Mansoura, Egypt. The scientists "found a significant difference between the mean serum cadmium levels in patients versus comparison subjects but not in age, sex, residence, occupation, or smoking status."
The study further point out that two commonly mentioned risk factors for pancreatic cancer — age and smoking — can also be associated with cadmium.
The authors explain: "Cadmium accumulates in the body over time because there are no specific mechanisms for its removal. The half-life of this metal in the body ranges from 10 to 30 years, with an average of 15 years. In addition, cigarette smoking is a significant source of cadmium. One cigarette contains 1–2 μg cadmium, and inhaled cadmium is absorbed much more efficiently than is ingested cadmium."
Certain people may also have a family history of cancer, making them more genetically suscptible to it.
While studies continue to show links between cancer and cadmium, as well as numerous other chemicals and components used to manufacture electronics, it remains a challenge to tease apart what risk factors, without a doubt, contribute to instances of the disease.
Pancreatic cancer is now the fourth leading cause of cancer death, according to the American Cancer Society. However, the type that Steve Jobs had, pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, is considered to be quite rare.
Photo: Steve Jobs; credit: Acaben
We may never know what exact factor, or combination of factors, led to Jobs' untimely death at the age of 56. Hopefully future research will better identify the causes so that, if the causes are associated with industrial production, legislators and the public might put pressure on companies to seek healthier, greener, and sustainable materials in the manufacture of consumer electronic devices and other goods.