June 3, 2004 11:20 AM PDT

Is the dust on your computer toxic?

According to new research into chemical residue found in the dust collecting on computers and other electronics devices, the PC that you're using to read this story could pose a long-term threat to your health.

In a report published by Clean Production Action and the Computer TakeBack Campaign, two groups studying environmental and health issues related to computers, researchers contend that potentially dangerous elements of brominated fire retardants are turning up in dust samples swiped from computers. The research indicates that the most commonly found example of these substances, widely used fire prevention compounds known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, have been found to cause health problems in lab animals.

Perhaps of greater concern is the report's contention that PBDEs, which have been shown to present reproductive and neurological risks to animals used in lab tests, remain persistent in the environment and contaminate food supplies, animals and humans. The researchers claim that the PBDE threat is greatest in North America, where women were found to have the highest levels of the chemicals present in their breast milk, and that PBDE levels are doubling in the U.S. population every two to five years.

The flame retardants are found not only in computers, but also in other commonly used electronics devices, including televisions and radios. In addition, while the substances have been linked to health issues in animals, there has been no definitive research proving their danger to humans.

The PBDE report arrives at a time when PC companies have been increasing efforts aimed at recycling old computing gear. Though the potentially toxic elements have been found at comparable levels in similar tests of other consumer electronics, and though it is recognized that devices such as cathode-ray tube televisions may pose even greater risks to the environment, the researchers said they targeted computers because of the rapid build-up of PCs in U.S. landfills.

Limited recycling thus far
Even though Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM--the world's three largest PC manufacturers, collectively shipping about 60 million units in 2003, according to IDC--all offer PC recycling programs, the number of PCs they recycle is still relatively low, analysts say. And there's a growing backlog to contend with: The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that the number of computers to be thrown out over the five years between 2002 and 2007 will reach 250 million.

PC market leader Dell, which shipped nearly 26 million computers in 2003, said last year that out of all the machines it has delivered since establishing its first recycling program 12 years ago, only 2 million PCs have been recycled. Last month, Dell announced plans to increase the amount of materials it collects by 50 percent, by weight, during fiscal 2005. Dell said that during its fiscal 2004, which ended Jan. 30, it collected 35 million pounds of computer gear for recycling.

Company officials were quick to point out that Dell has prohibited the use of PBDEs in any of its products since 2002, and they said that the PC maker has worked closely with groups such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a backer of the report, to help promote increased computer recycling. Bryant Hilton, a spokesman for Dell, said the company's goal is to make recycling programs more affordable and accessible to consumers.

"We agree that disposal is part of the life cycle responsibility we share with customers," said Hilton. "Dell has been active in efforts to set higher goals and take these substances out of our products, after disposal and before they ever reach consumers."

The study of PBDEs was based on 16 samples of dust collected by the Computer TakeBack Campaign and Clean Production Action from computer monitors in public locations across eight states, including university computer labs, legislative offices and a children's museum. The groups believe that the United States lags behind Europe in making efforts to reduce human exposure to the toxic substances, as the European Union has already called for all PBDEs used in consumer electronics to be phased out by 2006.

Pushing for change
Representatives for the Computer TakeBack Campaign, a coalition of organizations advocating for computer and electronics manufacturers to assume a greater role in recycling their own products, said that targeting PC makers before going after other device producers was a "no-brainer."

"Computers are the fastest growing environmental threat in terms of volume and represent the greatest burden on municipal disposal budgets and landfills," said Kara Reeve, a campaign manager at the Clean Water Fund, another organization pushing for computer recycling. "The manufacturers keep shipping out products, but local governments get stuck with the problem, and the cleanup bill."

Reeve pointed out that computer manufacturers have been required to meet more stringent recycling standards for years in some European countries, such as Germany, where PC makers have been held responsible for disposal of unwanted hardware and device packaging since the mid-1990s. She said the long-term goal of groups like hers is to encourage computer makers to continually review and improve their new product designs to eliminate potentially hazardous materials.

The Computer TakeBack Campaign and its members are currently focused on promotion of new legislation that would require computer and electronics vendors to be held responsible for PBDEs and other potentially toxic materials present in their products. Maine recently became the first state to ban the sale of products containing one such element, deca-BDE, as long as safer alternatives are available. California banned the production and use of other types of PBDEs, penta- and octa-BDE, in 2003. The state of Washington created an executive order to develop a plan to phase out all PBDEs, and variations of similar bills are being pursued in states including Massachusetts, New York and Wisconsin.

One point of contention in the legislative process highlighted by Reeve and the report publishers is the idea that any regulations applied to computer recycling should not unfairly target current market leaders such as Dell, and let companies responsible for a greater amount of historic waste, such as IBM, off the hook. Reeve said the industry remains split over the issue, with companies that represent a larger share of the current market backing plans that would require consideration of historic machine production totals in assessing any disposal fees, and other companies backing a system that puts a tax on new computer sales.

Dell's Hilton said his company firmly believes that rivals that turned out larger numbers of computers in years past should be held to the same standard as today's production leaders.

"You have to consider history, or who has had the market share and how that makes companies more or less responsible for the financing of recycling programs," said Hilton. "We want to do our part, but we think a fair assessment would look at the big picture."

9 comments

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Give us some perspective...
Interesting story, but there's one glaring omission - it doesn't say if the levels of PBDEs in the dust swipe from a single computer are just minute traces, or whether it's high enough to worry about in terms of a direct health threat. There are traces of Strontium 90 in cow's milk, for example, but people still guzzle milk every day with the blessing of health authorities. Can a single computer in your home or on your office desk give off enough PBDEs that using it daily is a direct health threat? Can just being near a computer hurt me, or would I have to regularly lick the motherboard or something to get a harmful level of PBDE exposure? Should people avoid leaving computers on/with fans running for fear of spreading the dust? Should filters be installed on PC exhaust fans immediately?
From your story, I don't know whether I should be continuing to use my PC or wrapping it in plastic and firing it out the door immediately ...
The story raises red flags that might well be valid, but this is also the type of story that could cause public hysteria if a threat gets highlighted but not put into perspective as to how "threatening" it really is.
I agree that the media should highlight threats to public health, but it needs to give people as much perspective as possible at the same time. That's the core of good journalism... go beyond the good lead and the press release information, and give people a picture that's as accurate as possible in terms of what's going on and how something affects them.
IJ
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Added info on recycling
The U.S. is currently in violation of a world
treaty on dumping computer/electronic parts. This
treaty was put in place because 80% of the toxic
waste in a landfill comes from the 10% of it that
is from electronics. (see computergeek .com
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.geek.com/news/geeknews/2002feb/gee20020226010435.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.geek.com/news/geeknews/2002feb/gee20020226010435.htm</a>
There must be better was to handle this mess.
I would like to see dismantling programs run by
a combination of waste management funding (garbage
fees) and some user fees (1% added to cost when sold). May be used to create jobs at halfway
houses, but life isn't perfect.
Posted by (1 comment )
Link Flag
Fine Perspective, Respondent Needs Awareness
The article gave a fine, objective informative perspective on the issue. The issue is not just the danger from the dust on one computer, but the cumulative effect on our environment and health and the industry's efforts on awareness and responsibility. Roetzel's additional environmental info is also very pertinent. "Panic", if it prompts more serious efforts to take responsibility in maintaining a clean, healthy environment, can then be productive. Instead of overreacting to part of the information given, consider the full scope of the article, do some additional research/reading, and learn more about the issues.
Posted by (1 comment )
Link Flag
Really ?
This takes the cake, computer dust hurts lab animals, we are not lab animals. The very air we breath is laden with autoexhust from cars with 5 times the compounds that are deadly to a human being. Nothing about that in the news. Carbon Monoxide kills lab animals and human beings too. Money takes care of that problem to the right people. So please stop trying to make a new industry by scaring gullable people. Computer dust is no more dangerous to people than EXHAUST fumes are thought to be.
Posted by Richie7 (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Really ?
This takes the cake, computer dust hurts lab animals, we are not lab animals. The very air we breath is laden with autoexhust from cars with 5 times the compounds that are deadly to a human being. Nothing about that in the news. Carbon Monoxide kills lab animals and human beings too. Money takes care of that problem to the right people. So please stop trying to make a new industry by scaring gullable people. Computer dust is no more dangerous to people than EXHAUST fumes are thought to be.
Posted by Richie7 (7 comments )
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Recycling options
The recent California bill (AB302) calling for a ban on the processing, manufacturing, sale or distribution of products containing more than 0.1% penta or octa BDE should not have much impact on the computer industry. The majority of PBDE flame retardants found in some of the thermoplastics used in monitor housings and computer cases are deca-BDE products. Deca BDE's are not included in the state actions noted by the author. From what I can tell, it is undetermined whether deca BDE breaks down into octa and penta molecules with exposure to heat and / or aging.

Dosage is another issue. As noted earlier, there are thresholds for safe exposure. If you read <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.tera.org/peer/VCCEP/OctaPenta/Octabromodiphenyl/Ether/VCCEP/Tier/1_Main/Report/04-21-03" target="_newWindow">http://www.tera.org/peer/VCCEP/OctaPenta/Octabromodiphenyl/Ether/VCCEP/Tier/1_Main/Report/04-21-03</a>).pdf ,you will find that normal household exposure is well within safety thresholds.

Of concern is the bio-accumulative nature of these products and what years of trace exposure might mean down the road.

The manufacturer of penta and octa BDE flame retardants announced it will voluntarily discontinue sale of its penta and octa products effective Jan. 1, 2005. And that's a positive step.

Now, in addition to recycling and recovery issues, is the question of what to about the volume of mud around capped off oil wells on the ocean floor that may be rich with PBDE content. Until recently, this was the primary application for PBDE compounds and somehow may be tied to how PBDE is apparently getting into the food chain.
Posted by (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Link to the penta / octa exposure report
The link should have been <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.tera.org/peer/VCCEP/OctaPenta/VCCEP%20Penta%20final%20report.pdf" target="_newWindow">http://www.tera.org/peer/VCCEP/OctaPenta/VCCEP%20Penta%20final%20report.pdf</a>

sorry for any inconvenience
Posted by (2 comments )
Link Flag
One problem with computer fans is they get stuck in dust. Whether it be a little fan on a graphic card or the computer's huge power supply block fan, after a year or so they are smeared in fine dust filaments. If a heatsink is placed beneath a fan it can accumulate quite a bunch of dust. This lowers the cooling performance of the fan and even can make it become noisy. Some people do open their computer once a year and vacuum clean all that dust inside and around the fans.

SOLOMON MWAGHA
Posted by smwagha (1 comment )
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Professionally I am a printing broker. I argue continuously with the uninformed about trees harvested for paper. Even on emails I see a tag that says, don't print this email unless necessary so that we save trees. How did all of this nonsense get started. Trees are a totally renewable, and recycleable resource. For pete's sake they are created to be harvested just like brocholli. For every tree harvested the paper industry plants five more. At this rate we will be overrun with trees. The trees aren't in danger.

Electronics on the other hand, don't recycle well and now I learn from this article that even the dust collecting on my system can harm me. We need badges like the ones they wear in the nuclear industry to tell us if we've been exposed to these hazardous particles.

If you would like to keep up with what is going on in the printing, and publishing industries be sure to drop by my blog http://www.billprintbroker.com.
Posted by BillRuesch (2 comments )
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