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Study finds suspect chemicals in computer dust

June 3, 2004

Austin American-Statesman
Kevin Carmody

Dust on computers in government and university offices throughout the country, including one tested at the University of Texas, contained measurable levels of several fire retardant chemicals that are under mounting scrutiny as human health risks, according to a report to be released today in Austin.

PBDEsThe report shows that dust samples swiped from all 16 computers tested at the public offices contained widely varying levels of several brominated fire retardant chemicals used in making computers.The highest levels found were of one chemical — deca-BDE — which an industry trade group contends does not easily seep from computers and enter the environment or people’s bodies, according to the report by a national coalition of environmental advocacy groups including the Austin-based Texas Campaign for the Environment.

The report comes just days before scientists are to gather at the University of Toronto for a third international conference examining the newest research into possible environmental and human health risks posed by those chemicals, which are similar to the now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and are suspected of causing neurological and reproductive harm.

Several European countries have banned use of the chemicals based on health concerns, and the European Union is requiring a phase-out of most brominated fire retardants by 2006. In the United States, although manufacturers have agreed to phase out two of the chemicals by 2006 — octa-BDE and penta-BDE — deca-BDE can still be used.

The results of the dust tests do not prove that people are ingesting significant amounts of the chemicals through exposure to dust on computers, as opposed to other routes such as eating contaminated fish or livestock, the report’s authors concede.

However, because deca-BDE is used primarily in electronics, rather than in furniture and other products, the results suggest computer dust might be a significant source, said Robin Schneider, who heads the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

The highest levels of deca-BDE were found on dust on a Compaq computer at a university office in New York State, while the second highest levels came from a 2002 model Dell computer in the Maine state Capitol, the report states.

The University of Texas computer, at the Jester Center, had levels of deca-BDE five times lower than the New York campus computer.

Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton said the company has barred the use of brominated fire retardants, including deca-BDE, in the plastic components of its computers since 2002. Not all of its competitors have done so or even report what flame retardants they use, according to the coalition’s report.

Dell is researching ways to replace a related chemical fire retardant, TBBPA, which is still used in the manufacture of its printed circuit boards, Hilton said.

What are brominated flame retardants?

A family of chemicals, similar to now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls, that have widely used as fire retardants in consumer products. The principal types of brominated fire retardants, and their primary uses, are:

Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA): Epoxy resins (printed circuit boards and printed wire boards of computers and other electronic products), and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (housings of computers, PC monitors, televisions and other electronic products).

Decabromodiphenyl Oxide (Deca-BDE): High impact polystyrene (electronic equipment), polyethylenes (wire and cables of electronic equipment), upholstery textiles, building and construction applications.

Octabromodiphenyl Oxide (Octa-BDE): ABS plastics (PC monitors, housings for televisions, mobile phones and copy machine parts).

Pentabromodiphenyl Oxide (Penta-BDE): Polyurethane foam, mattresses, seat cushions, upholstered furniture, carpet underlay and bedding.

Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD): Polystyrene foam (building materials, i.e. insulation) and textiles (upholstered textiles).

— Source: Bromine Science and Environmental Forum Web site:


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