• 02 JUL 20
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    Recent Swedish article on chemical emissions and human health

    The following is a recent article (April 9, 2020) by Swedish investigative journalist Gunni Nordström. It was published in the Swedish language Newspaper in Finland Vasabladet

    Translation by Gunni Nordstrom

    The interesting question thus arises. If human exposure to these chemicals is commonplace in the modern high-tech world, will chronic low-level chemical exposure make one more prone to catching whatever virus may be circulating in their environment?



    Chemicals in electronic devices:


    Health hazards in the form of dangerous chemicals are built into electronic devices when these are manufactured. As scrap, the devices are an environmental risk to both nature and people. But it is less known that the devices can leak hazardous substances during normal use.

    The role of the chemicals as an essential cause of ill-health is surprisingly rarely discussed. Above all, there is no detailed discussion of possible relationship between chemicals and so called new diseases such as multiple chemical hypersensitivity, electrical hypersensitivity and chronic fatigue.

    A treatment clinic for people who don’t tolerate modern environment will be opened in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. But on the question is if it is intended to determine from which working environments the patients worked and to make measurements of chemical levels they have in their blood and tissues, professor Risto Vataja, who is responsible for the clinic, answers that there are no resources available for such.

    What the clinic, according to Vataja, will be focusing on is to “ťimprove the functioning ability”ť of the patients who suffer from symptoms that have “ťno logical explanation”ť. Moreover he referes to the Occupational Health Institute in Helsinki. Some years ago researchers from that institute studied chemical substances in the air around workers in recycling stations. They found a lot of substances, for example brominated flame retardants. It led to some recommendations on safeguards for those working with electronic scrap. No corresponding measurements have been made of which chemical levels from electronics contribute to the air in offices.

    In USA it was clear early that the telecom industry employees had by far the highest frequency of occupational diseases. This contributed to moving parts of the production to low-wage countries where weak unions and often corrupted authorities did not place onerous demands on the working environment. But also from these countries came reports of similar health problems as in the US.

    The computer-manufactoring IBM has on several occasions been brought to trial by employees who have fallen ill. One of the invoked experts was Richard Clapp, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Boston. After analyzing the causes of death among nearly 32,000 IBM employees during the period 1969-2001, he found a cancer incidence that was significantly above the average in the American population. He also found increased risks for diseases such as MS and Parkinson´s. IBM was not convicted in the trials but made several financial settlements with the prosecutors.

    One of those who has long been following the health problems among employees in the Silicon Valley semiconductor industry, the cradle of IT technology in California, is Joe LaDou, a physician and director of a an occupational medical center at the University of California in San Fransisco. He visited Stockholm as early as the 1980s and told the Swedish occupational health and safety authorities about employees in US who fell ill in so-called clean rooms, in laboratories where they were as careful as in an operation room to avoid dust and pollution to protect the fragile components dipped in different chemical baths. But it was still not possible to protect the employees from toxic aerosols and gases from acids and solvents, which were dispersed with the return air systems in the clean rooms. Joe LaDou talked about employees who became hypersensitive to almost everything, as if their immune system would have stopped working.

    Many of the chemicals used in the clean rooms were known as carcinogenic, some even as endocrine disruptors. The latter means that normal dose-response rules are discontinued. Extremely low levels of endocrine disruptors can have effect. LaDou mentioned concerns about synergistic effects between different chemicals and he mentioned also that microwaves occurred in certain work steps as well as chemicals that could react with light in the lithographic processes using UV.

    In the Swedish Occupational Safety and Health Administration, now closed, this information didn´t seem to have aroused any associations with the epidemic of health problems, which had been reported since the beginning of 1980s among Swedish office employees, working at the cathode ray tube screens of the time. People talked about screen sickness, but those affected preferred the term electrohypersensitivity (EHS) as they began to react to other electrical devices as well. They complained mainly about skin and eye problems, but also about neurological symptoms. In extreme cases, those affected also reacted to normal daylight.

    At this time, no one drew any parallels to an incident at Svenska Fläktfabriken outside Umeå in the north part of Sweden, where some 60 workers in a large factory hall in the late 1970s had suffered from skin and eye problems, in some cases also from severe light sensitivity, all this because they had been exposed to decomposition particles of epoxy resin which had been accidentally heated in an adjacent room.

    There had been created so-called photochemical reactions between the epoxy emissions and light from the windows and also fluorescent lamps in the factory hall. That was the explanation by those who investigated what had happened. A dermatologist who was a member of the investigative team reported the case to the reputable medical journal The Lancet.

    Representatives of the chemical industry warned the investigators not to indicate epoxy resin as the cause of what had happened.

    Just a few years later, a rally of similar cases occurred in an office in Umeå, where nine of fourteen female employees fell ill after receiving new displays. They consulted the dermatology clinic in Umeå, where the staff noted that they had to lower the lighting for this patient group in the same way as for the patients from Svenska Fläkt. Could there be a common factor in the exposure that both groups had been exposed to?

    It´s an interesting fact that the circuit boards in computer equipment at the time was built on a pattern board of copper-coated epoxy laminate with epoxy resin as a binder. Epoxy resin was also used to mold components into the board so it became a circuit board. The circuit boards contained also a variety of other substances. Epoxy resin is produced by a reaction between epichlorohydrin and Bisphenol A, the latter much discussed in recent years. Bisphenol A is one of the five most used brominated flame retardants, today classified as very toxic.

    During the 1980´s and partly also the 1990’s, the number of screen users who became ill with similar symptoms increased to what could be called an occupational illness epidemic among Swedish professional employees, a completely new phenomenon. A pilot case was brought to court, it concerned a female banker. After a ten year trial process in various courts, the announcement came in 1994 that electromagnetic fields in computers were not a health risk.

    In the way you ask you get answers; no one had asked the question whether chemicals could play any role in the context, possibly in combination with electromagnetic fields. Except for the pilot case; she had informed the courts about chemicals in electronic devices. The text of the verdict also shows that a representative of the Swedish National Chemical Inspectorate had informed that it had been possible to measure dibenzofurans in room air in offices with computers, a fact that seems in itself quite astonishing. Dibenzofurans are a type of dioxins that can be formed as a by-product when heating brominated substances.

    From offices in the US and Canada early health reports of the same kind as in Sweden have been found. Since many of the victims were young male stockbrokers, they started talking about yuppie sickness. A Canadian trade unionist named Bob DeMatteo wrote a book on the topic titled Terminal Shock. It was published in 1986.

    Bob DeMatteo mentions in his book that there had long been suspicions that among other substances PCB, polychlorinated biphenyls, were still used in monitors, despite health alarms on PCB since the 1960´s when their circulation was revealed by Professor Sören Jensen at Stockholm University.

    Bob DeMatteo reveals in his book that two Norwegian researchers, Vemund Digernes and Erle Astrup at the University of Oslo, had made measurements to find out if PCB could actually leak from monitors in normal use and they found that this happened: It was possible to measure PCBs in rooms with screens. They also found a strong connection between the emissions from the equipment and skin problems among the users.

    IBM had, according to Bob DeMatteo, assured that the company stopped using PCBs as early as during the 1970´s. But PCBs could remain in older screens in use and it was not sure that the PCB ban was followed outside US and Europe.

    Bob DeMatteo attended the first international display conference in Sweden in 1986 where experts discussed health problems among display users, but his book received no attention and he was allowed to speak only in a small group during the conference. At that time the discussion only concerned with the electromagnetic fields of the computer equipment. Any interaction effects between these fields and different chemicals were not mentioned at all.

    But in 1990 the press unveiled a hitherto secret list of substances that could be released from IBM screens under normal use. IBM did not deny the emissions, but stated that it was a question of such low levels that they could not have any health impact.

    It was not until 1996 that chemicals in monitors again became discussed, although not only in the screens and other electronics, but to a rapidly increasing extent in a variety of products. Professor Ă…ke Bergman at Stockholm University had measured PBDE, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, in human blood. It was a front page news.

    His colleague Sören Jensen, who in the 1960´s, had revealed how the chlorinated PCBs were distributed in the circulation right up to the polar bears in Antarctica, was upset. “ťIt feels like I have lived in vain when chlorine just has been exchanged for bromine and the brominated substances have been allowed to spread without any control before the research caught on”ť, he said when I interviewed him.

    Now we have estrogen-like brominated substances everywhere, substances that can compete with natural human hormones and create havoc in human hormone systems.

    Gunni Nordström



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