Toxic dust found lurking in tech kit

A 1970s legacy of death

A study conducted by environmental groups in the US has found yet another way our computers are trying to kill us.

The research found that dust on computer processors and monitors contains several chemicals that have been linked to neurological and reproductive disorders. The source? Brominated fire retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl (PBDEs).

Researchers collected dust samples from computers in eight states, including university labs in New York, an interactive exhibit at a kiddie museum in Maine and the government offices in California.

PBDEs are one of three types of brominated flame retardants the resesarchers were testing for. Although PBDEs have been linked conclusively to neurological damange in rats, the effects on humans are less well documented.

When manufacturers first began using brominated flame retardants in the 1970s, it was widely believed that the chemicals could not escape the plastic. These finding suggest otherwise.

Ted Smith, director of the Toxics Coalition, said that the chemical indystry 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."

Penta- and octa-brominated diphenyl will be taken off the US market by the end of 2004, and environmental groups are campaigning for a ban on deca-brominated diphenyl.

In the UK, we are taking steps in the right direction too. The European Directive on the restriction of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment (ROHS) requires that from 1 July 2006, new electrical and electronic equipment will not contain lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls or polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

The directive is to be brought into force in the UK by 13 August this year, and will be reviewed by the European Commission before 13 February 2005 to take account of new scientific evidence.

According to other scientists, such as Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, there is no need to panic. They say that although the levels of PBDEs are high enough to be worth talking about, they are unlikely to pose a serious threat to human health. ®

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