TV gas `poisons viewers'

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POISONOUS chemicals seeping out of television sets and computers are contaminating those who watch and use them, new research reveals.

The findings, due to be published next month, indicate that the whole population is now polluted with the chemicals - used as fire retardants - and they are rapidly building up in people's bodies. The chemicals are thought to cause brain damage and disrupt the hormone system, causing "gender bender" effects.

Even before the study, the chemicals - also used in curtains, other textiles and foam-filled furniture - sparked a row within the Government. John Prescott's Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is examining ways of restricting their use. But Stephen Byers' Department of Trade and Industry dismisses concerns as "chemophobia", claiming the chemicals pose no serious threat.

Sweden is moving to ban the chemicals and the World Health Organisation has recommended "they should not be used where suitable replacements are available". The chemicals, called Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), are used in televisions, computers and other electrical goods made of plastic to stop them catching fire when they overheat. But as they warm up they give off fumes that are breathed in by their users.

Last year an international study by scientists in Germany, the United States and the Netherlands reported how a young Israeli had developed an alarming series of symptoms after prolonged exposure to television screens. During an eight-month period when he was 13 the youth spent several hours a day watching TV and playing computer games while in a small, unventilated room.

His liver swelled, his gall- bladder shrunk, his hands trembled, he developed painful sores on the soles of his feet and his hair fell out to be "replaced by abnormal hair of a metallic texture and darker colour". Tests revealed PBDEs in his body and the study concluded it was likely that "exposure to vapours from the television set has caused the dramatic health effect".

The new study will be published in the August issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives by scientists from the Universities of Stockholm and Lund in Sweden. The study looked at levels of chemicals in workers at a factory dismantling electrical equipment, computer operators and people who had not been exposed to them at work.

The factory workers had high levels of the chemicals in their blood. The computer operators had "significantly elevated" amounts. But the big surprise was that the levels in the general public were not far below those in the computer operator.

The study concludes that the chemicals were contaminating blood "irrespective of whether the subjects had been working in a potentially non-PBDE contaminated environment or not".

Gwynne Lyons, a member of the Health and Safety Executive's Advisory Committee on Toxic Substances and a consultant for WWF-UK, says some of the chemicals are thought to interfere with the normal development of the brain and to disrupt the hormone system.