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Phasing Out Brominated Fire Retardants from Consumer Electronics May Be A Bad Idea

Published on January 22, 2008 at 2:01 AM

A Korean journalist narrowly escaped serious injury after his laptop computer exploded into flames. Korean newspapers reported that the computer, which contained an LG Chem battery, had been in sleep mode just before it exploded.

This incident highlights concerns about the issue of fire safety and electronic equipment. Around the world, thousands of people are killed every year as a result of domestic fires, many of which are started by or involve consumer electronics.

Manufacturers are coming under increasing pressure from some environmental groups to phase out some of the most effective flame retardants currently available. Amongst other companies, LG Electronics, manufacturer of the laptop that exploded in Korea, recently announced that the company would phase out the use of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in its products in response to pressure from Greenpeace.

Greenpeace is campaigning against electronics manufacturers that use BFRs to prevent their products from catching fire, despite the significant fire danger that electronics products can pose if they overheat, have electrical malfunction or are ignited by outside source. The substances Greenpeace seeks to eliminate are all approved for use, and provide critical performance and safety functions in a wide range of electronic products.

“It is only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or killed – and it will be as a direct result of this relentless pressure from activists to remove tested and proven flame retardants without reliable substitutes,” said Michael Spiegelstein, Chairman of the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum.

BFRs are commonly used in electronics to provide a high level fire safety. In certain applications, they are the most effective, efficient products available. The two types of brominated flame retardants commonly used in electronic devices are TBBPA and Deca-BDE.

TBBPA is widely used in electronics, especially in printed circuit boards, due to its effectiveness, reliability and safety with respect to the environment and to human health. A recent, extensive risk assessment conducted by the European Union concluded that TBBPA is safe for continued use and presents no health risk.

Deca-BDE is used to protect the plastic components of electronic devices from the risks of fire. Last December, EU regulatory authorities approved an updated risk assessment of Deca-BDE, which covers over 1,000 scientific studies and which did not identify any risk to human health or to the environment under Deca-BDE’s conditions of manufacturing and use.

Preventing fires in electronics is particularly important, as they often contain heat sources and significant amounts of highly flammable plastics. Other recent incidents include music players, computer batteries and game consoles bursting into flames.

NGOs should consider the consumer safety before pressuring manufacturers to phase out proven substances without proposing reliable alternatives.

Source: Bromine Science and Environment Forum

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