People have described the odour emitted by toxic computer fumes as "new car smell," "rotting carpet" and "musty." The manufacturing of computer products relies heavily on the use of toxic chemicals for electrical insulation, soldering and fire protection. Exposure to chemical fumes over the long term can cause cancer, mutate DNA, cause miscarriages and disrupt the endocrine system by interfering with hormone function. Some environmentally concerned computer manufacturers are addressing the issue and are trying to discourage the use of toxic chemicals in the manufacturing of components.
Manufacturers use benzene to create flame retardant compounds to insulate computer circuit boards, electronic components, fans and other computer assemblies. When overheated, benzene creates fumes that are a known carcinogen. Benzene damages bone marrow and decreases red blood cells, which can lead to blood cancer.
Polyvinyl chloride, called PVC or vinyl, is a chemical used to make the insulation for electronic wires and cables in computers. When polyvinyl chloride is overheated, it can form fumes that are carcinogenic or cause reproductive toxins that can cause birth defects.
Chlorofluorocarbons, commonly called CFCs, are a hazard to the ozone and to humans. Research by the World Health Organization indicates that the CFC chemical compound 1-trifluoroethane causes dizziness, headaches and nausea in humans following a single exposure. Animal studies have indicated that inhalation for a few minutes has caused liver lesions, central nervous system depression and cardiac arrhythmia. Computer manufacturers use chlorofluorocarbons to make computers fire retardant and to manufacture heat dispersion systems like internal computer fans. The Environmental Protection Agency plans to ban all CFC products by 2030 and many U.S. computer manufacturers are now moving away from their use. However, consumers should be aware that there is a risk when purchasing refurbished older computers.
Lead is an airborne contaminant widely used in the manufacturing of computers. Manufacturers use lead in the making of computer boards and circuit soldering. Lead oxide is used in plasma display panels and computer monitors. Manufacturers use lead in the construction of cable jacks for computer cables. Certain computer batteries also contain lead. Exposure to lead can cause learning difficulties and slow growth in children. Adults with lead poisoning can have muscular weakness, reproductive dysfunction such as abnormal sperm, mood swings and memory loss.