This just in: Toxic chemicals are used in the manufacturing of computer products and you could be exposed to them by using a computer. This might, possibly, maybe, could potentially be hazardous to your health.
I thought this would’ve been obvious to most folks by now, but apparently the folks at the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition think this is big news.
“This will be a great surprise to everyone who uses a computer,” said Ted Smith, director of the Toxics Coalition. “The chemical industry 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.”
What’s got the Toxic Coalitions’ panties all in a bunch is a study that indicates dust on the surfaces of common devices in homes and offices often contains traces of brominated flame retardants. Various electronic manufacturers have been using polybrominated diphenyl (PBDEs) in the manufacturing of their products as a flame retardant since back in the 1970s. PBDEs are related to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) which have been used in fire extinguishers, fluorescent lights and liquid insulators since the 1920s. Various studies over the years have shown that PBDEs do cause neurological damage in laboratory rats so it’s not that these chemicals aren’t toxic and penta- and octa-brominated diphenyl are scheduled to come off the market by the end of the year. Deca-brominated diphenyl will still be available, but the environmentalists are pushing to have it yanked as well. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has confirmed that PCBs can damage the brains of human fetuses and researchers have been studying the possible links between brominated flame retardants and autism, but the results of that study will be some time in coming.
The question is just how much danger are you really in?
Independent researchers who reviewed the new study say consumers shouldn’t throw out their computers, and they needn’t wear special gloves or minimize exposure to computer monitors. There’s no known way to remove dust-born PBDEs, so special wipes or sprays wouldn’t reduce chemical exposure.
“The levels in the dust are enough to raise a red flag, but not enough to create a crisis,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and assistant professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco. “I have an old computer monitor in front of me now, and I’m not about to throw it away. But when I get a new one, it darn well will be free of these chemicals.”
In other words, this isn’t quite the panic inducing news item that the folks at the Toxic Coalition make it out to be. First off, the electronics industry has already been phasing out their use of some brominated flame retardants since the late 1990s in part because of restrictions in European countries on the sale of products containing them. Dell and Apple computer both stopped using PBDEs in 2002. It’s still a good thing to get the chemicals off the market, but it’s a little late to be making a big deal out of it.
Which brings me to my second point: If you think that you’re not exposed to potentially harmful chemicals on a daily basis then you’re either very naive or living ala-Una Bomber in a shack in the middle of nowhere (and thus, probably not reading this). It should be pretty obvious to anyone paying even casual attention to the news that everything from the clothes you put on your body to the food you’re shoveling in your mouth has probably got some chemicals in it that could potentially be hazardous to your health. That is, alas, part of the price we pay for living in a modern society. Even if we could get rid of everything we suspect might be toxic from the manufacturing of all our products without affecting the quality or safety, that doesn’t mean we won’t find out stuff we thought was safe actually isn’t at a later date.
Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to reduce and eliminate toxic substances from our products when the research shows them to be dangerous, but let’s try to save the look-at-what-those-evil-chemical-producers-are-forcing-down-our-throats rhetoric for situations that actually warrant it, eh?