'Toxic Dust' on Computers Tied to Disease
On the Net:: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition:
http://www.svtc.org June 4, 2004
By RACHEL KONRAD AP Technology Writer
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - "Toxic dust" found on computer processors and
monitors contains chemicals linked to reproductive and neurological
disorders, according to a new study by several environmental groups.
The survey, released Thursday by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition,
Computer TakeBack Campaign and Clean Production Action, is among the first
to identify brominated flame retardants on the surfaces of common devices in
homes and offices.
Electronics companies began using polybrominated diphenyl (PBDEs) and
other flame retardants in the 1970s, arguing that the toxins prevent fires
and cannot escape from plastic casings.
"This will be a great surprise to everyone who uses a computer," said Ted
Smith, director of the Toxics Coalition. "The chemical industry is
subjecting us all to what amounts to chemical trespass by putting these
substances into use in commerce. They continue to use their chemicals in
ways that are affecting humans and other species."
Researchers collected samples of dust from dozens of computers in eight
states, including university computer labs in New York, Michigan and Texas,
legislative offices in California, and an interactive computer display at a
children's museum in Maine. They tested for three types of brominated flame
retardants suspected to be hazardous.
The most toxic piece of equipment discovered by the researchers was a new
flat-screen monitor in a university in New York, implying that newer
equipment isn't necessarily cleaner.
Penta- and octa-brominated diphenyl will be taken off the market by the
end of the year. Environmental groups are demanding legislation that would
ban deca-brominated diphenyl, too.
PBDEs, which have caused neurological damage in laboratory rats in
numerous studies, are related to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs have
been used in fire extinguishers, fluorescent lights and liquid insulators
since the 1920s.
PCBs were outlawed in the 1970s, but the toxins don't erode and still
persist in the environment.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services, and several other organizations
have confirmed that PCBs damage brains of human fetuses.
Scientists have not directly correlated exposure to PBDEs with specific
diseases or developmental impairment. Researchers at University of
California, Davis, and elsewhere are studying possible links between
brominated flame retardants and autism, but results are years away.
Independent researchers who reviewed the new study say consumers
shouldn't throw out their computers, and they needn't wear special gloves or
minimize exposure to computer monitors. There's no known way to remove
dust-born PBDEs, so special wipes or sprays wouldn't reduce chemical
"The levels in the dust are enough to raise a red flag, but not enough to
create a crisis," said Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist at the Natural
Resources Defense Council and assistant professor of medicine at University
of California, San Francisco. "I have an old computer monitor in front of me
now, and I'm not about to throw it away. But when I get a new one, it darn
well will be free of these chemicals."
The electronics industry has been reducing or eliminating some brominated
flame retardants since the late 1990s, when European countries began
prohibiting the sale of products that contain the chemicals.
Dell Inc. and many other computer makers continue using a flame retardant
related to PBDEs on circuit boards. They use lead, mercury and other toxins
in central processing units and monitors. But Dell, along with Apple
Computer Inc. and others, stopped using PBDEs in 2002.
"People can be very confident about their new computer purchase," Dell
spokesman Bryant Hilton said. "We've worked a lot with suppliers, and we
require audits and material data sheets on all our products. It's an
important topic to be aware of, and brominated flame retardants are
something we've been very focused on and will continue to be focused on."
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