The survey, released Thursday by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Computer TakeBack Campaign and Clean Production Action, is among the first to identify brominated flame retardants on the surfaces of common devices in homes and offices.
Electronics companies began using polybrominated diphenyl (PBDEs) and other flame retardants in the 1970s, arguing that the toxins prevent fires and cannot escape from plastic casings.
"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."
Researchers collected samples of dust from dozens of computers in eight states, including university computer labs in New York, Michigan and Texas, legislative offices in California, and an interactive computer display at a children's museum in Maine. They tested for three types of brominated flame retardants suspected to be hazardous.
The most toxic piece of equipment discovered by the researchers was a new flat-screen monitor in a university in New York, implying that newer equipment isn't necessarily cleaner.
Penta- and octa-brominated diphenyl will be taken off the market by the end of the year. Environmental groups are demanding legislation that would ban deca-brominated diphenyl, too.
PBDEs, which have caused neurological damage in laboratory rats in numerous studies, are related to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs have been used in fire extinguishers, fluorescent lights and liquid insulators since the 1920s.
PCBs were outlawed in the 1970s, but the toxins don't erode and still persist in the environment.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and several other organizations have confirmed that PCBs damage brains of human fetuses.
Scientists have not directly correlated exposure to PBDEs with specific diseases or developmental impairment. Researchers at University of California, Davis, and elsewhere are studying possible links between brominated flame retardants and autism, but results are years away.
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."
The electronics industry has been reducing or eliminating some brominated flame retardants since the late 1990s, when European countries began prohibiting the sale of products that contain the chemicals.
Dell Inc. and many other computer makers continue to use a flame retardant related to PBDEs on circuit boards. They use lead, mercury and other toxins in central processing units and monitors. But Dell, along with Apple Computer Inc. and others, stopped using PBDEs in 2002.
"People can be very confident about their new computer purchase," Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton said. "We've worked a lot with suppliers, and we require audits and material data sheets on all our products. It's an important topic to be aware of, and brominated flame retardants are something we've been very focused on and will continue to be focused on."
By Rachel Konrad