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Jun. 3--When you hit a key on your computer or wipe your monitor, you may be picking up toxic dust.
A study to be released today reports that dust on computers contains a flame retardant with a toxic chemical known to pose reproductive and neurological hazard in animals. The report was published by advocacy groups that included the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
The report, along with other recent studies, suggests that people are exposed daily to such chemicals in the office and at home. Right now, though, scientists can't predict what, if any, harm these chemicals -- known as PBDEs -- have on humans.
"It all goes into consumer products -- plastics, TV consoles, computer consoles, hair dryers," said Kim Hooper, a state research scientist at the Hazardous Materials Lab of Cal/EPA. "How safe is it? I don't think we have an answer. We have concern."
The nationwide analysis found computers -- from a San Francisco supervisor's office to a Miami university computer lab -- were covered with dust from fire retardants that contained PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers. PBDEs, one of the most widely used fire retardant chemicals in the electronics industry, have also been found in human tissue and breast milk samples in the United States and abroad.
"We've always theorized this is happening," said Ted Smith, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "But this is the first time we've proved it. The fact that every single sample came back positive is significant."
PBDEs contain bromine, and several different kinds are used for fire retardants. Two other types of PBDEs -- used mostly for furniture but also in some electronics -- will already be phased out by the chemical industry by the end of the year. In California, these types will be officially banned beginning 2008.
However, that still leaves another kind of PBDE, called deca-BDE, used extensively in electronic products. The European Union has banned deca-BDE effective in 2006.
Past research has shown that California women have three to 30 times more of PBDEs in their breast tissue than do Europeans or Japanese women. Studies have also revealed that North American women have the highest levels of PBDEs in the world, close to the levels shown to damage memory, behavior and learning in laboratory mice.
Since 1997, levels of PBDEs have doubled in halibut and tripled in striped bass found in Bay Area waters, other research has shown.
Scientists have also expressed alarm over fire retardant chemicals used in circuit boards. When old computers are melted down in countries such as China, the chemicals are released in the air and have been detected around the globe.
"Brominated chemicals catch our attention," said Sonya Lunder, an analyst with the Environmental Working Group in Oakland. "Time and again, they are toxic and persistent in the environment and in people."
Her organization, an advocacy group, recently published a study that found PBDEs in dust in American homes. A study in 2003 revealed traces of the chemicals in women's breast milk.
Research now provides "persuasive evidence that these chemicals are leaching out of computers and electronics in the home and the office environment," Lunder said.
The report points out that some PC makers are developing less flammable materials or redesigning products so flame retardants aren't needed. Apple, for instance, is replacing the plastic casing on its new laptops with metal.
"This is not a new issue to the computer industry," Smith said. "They've known about this for a long time. But their response has been mixed."
The report, "Brominated Flame Retardants in Dust on Computers: The Case for Safer Chemicals and Better Computer Design," can be viewed at www.svtc.org or www.computertakeback.com.
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