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Flame Retardants Released by Recycling Old Computers 
Mindfully.org 1feb01

Data on exposures to some of the traditional organohalogen substances (OHS) have been included for comparative reasons. BFRs are produced and applied in large quantities for fire prevention purposes in our society today. The ongoing production and use may lead to a dramatic pollution problem in the future unless they are used with care. Human exposure to BFRs must also be understood, assessed and measures based on the scientific knowledge should be taken when necessary.

Ambient air measurements of BFRs at an electronics dismantling plant showed significantly higher levels of hexa- to decabrominated diphenyl ethers (hexaBDE-decaBDE), tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) and 1,2-bis(2,4,6-tribromophenoxy) ethane (BTBPE) than in any other indoor facilities, including IT intensive work environments. Serum PBDE levels in workers at a dismantling plant were found to have significantly elevated concentrations of hepta- to decaBDEs, compared to a non-exposed group of women, comprised of cleaners. Results were obtained that unambiguously show that decaBDE is bioavailable, even though it has a molecular mass of 959 and previously was regarded as not being bioavailable. The decaBDE is present both in the workers and in persons from the control group. The decaBDE has however also been shown to be much less persistent than other PBDE congeners, with a half-life in humans of approximately 7 days, while a heptaBDE was shown to have a half-life of almost 3 months. TBBPA was also shown at low levels in human blood and to have a short half-life. Human exposure to organohalogen substances (OHS) via intake of contaminated fish has been studied in a group of Latvian and Swedish men with highly interindividual consumption of fatty Baltic Sea fish. The OHS levels observed in serum were significantly related to both age and fish consumption for PCB and DDE but not for 2,2',4,4'-tetrabromodiphenyl ether, representing traditionally studied and newer OHS, respectively.

Andreas Sjödin.
Occupational and Dietary Exposure to Organohalogen Substances, with Special Emphasis on Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers. 
ISBN 91-7265-052-4
Akademitryck, Edsbruk, 2000

Mindfully.org encourages the recycling of obsolete electronics. But it must be done in a way that protects workers from absorbing the flame retardants used in the manufacture of many of these products. High levels of toxic flame retardants are released into the air when they are disassembled.

Researchers at Sweden's Stockholm University (see sidebar) discovered high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which are widely used for fire safety in computers, television sets, upholstery and cars. In fact, they were thousands of times higher than in a printed circuit board assembly plant. The testing was done at Stena-Technoworld AB recycling company in Sweden. 

A recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin examined 21 salmon from Lake Michigan and found all of them contained high levels of PBDEs. According to Jon Manchester, lead author, "The concentrations are among the highest reported in the world for salmon in open waters. We are concerned with any compound that bio-accumulates." The average level of PBDE contamination in the salmon was 80 parts per billion — about six times higher than levels found in a 1999 salmon study in the Baltic Sea, where the most intensive research has been conducted for PBDEs.

Brominated compounds such as PBDEs account for about 25% of 600,000 tons of flame-retardants produced each year. Most likely, these compounds will make environmental catastrophes similar to PCBs, which the EPA ranks as being in the top ten percent of the most toxic chemicals.

Flame-retardant chemicals are nearly free from regulation. PBDEs as a group, affect thyroid hormones in a dose- response relationship like that of PCBs.  EPA is extremely concerned because people now have levels of PBDEs close to those of PCBs, and rising. Sweden is considering a ban on PBDEs. Breakdown metabolites may be active as endocrine disrupters. PBDEs increase the risk of cancer, liver damage and immune system dysfunction. And in mice, they can create an negative health affects on neurodevelopment, learning, memory and reproduction.

It is thought that PBDEs may be more environmentally persistent than PCBs. While they began to build up within the last 20 years, the rate of increase is significantly higher than PCBs. They have been detected in sediments, meat, fish, sperm-whale blubber, office air and human blood, especially among workers in electronics recycling plants. A recent Swedish study found a 50-fold increase in PBDEs in women's breast milk between 1972 and 1997.

The electronics recycling industry is growing very rapidly. Research for the referenced article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, shows that not all managers of the recycling companies know about the issue.

As is true for the majority of chemicals, there is little or no information on the environmental or human health effects. The regulations in place do not in any  way protect people from the threat of flame retardants. There are more than 75 brominated flame retardants. They are used in plastics, rubbers, and textiles. And the are three PBDEs. three of those brominated flame retardants are PBDEs.

A barrier to updating ventilation systems in recycling plants is that the cost involved is most likely extremely expensive. And as is typical, the industry word is that " levels of flame retardants to which electronics recycling workers are exposed can easily be handled by conventional industrial hygiene practices." ( Michael Spiegelstein, chairman of the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum.)

Other Resources:
Flame Retardant Exposure: Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers in Blood from Swedish Workers
Andreas Sjödin, Lars Hagmar, Eva Klasson-Wehler, Kerstin Kronholm-Diab, Eva Jakobsson, and Åke Bergman
Environ. Health Perspect. 1999, 107 (8), 643-648).

Some information for this article came from :
Could flame retardants deter electronics recycling? Environmental Science and Technology v.35, i.3  1feb01
http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/journals/esthag-a/35/i03/html/02news1.html 01feb01

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