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Is the dust on your computer toxic?

A new study says computer dust contains traces of fire prevention compounds that have been shown in lab tests to present reproductive and neurological risks to animals.

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."