Scientific Consensus Backs Up Flame Retardants' Health Risks

Scientific Consensus Backs Up Flame Retardants' Health Risks

Electronic fire - CC license by Flickr user Alfo23

Some flame retardants pose numerous health hazards to humans and the environment while providing little protection from fire, says a group of scientists suggesting changes to how flame retardants are chosen for products and how products containing them are recycled.

The San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame Retardants, signed by 145 scientists from 22 countries, says that brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and chlorinated flame retardants (CFRs) need to be better scrutinized, and as types of flame retardants are banned, the alternatives should be proven safe before being used.

BFRs and CFRs are used in furniture, electronics, insulation and other products, and have been linked to cancer and impaired brain and reproductive development. 

Flame retardants in the electronics industry have been targeted in a number of ways already. The European Union's Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive restricts two types of BFRs, but a coalition of companies like Dell, HP and Sony Ericsson and environmental groups want that expanded to include all BFRs. Dell is already planning to exclude BRFs from all new products starting in late 2011.

Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics bases its score partially on companies' efforts to remove flame retardants and set timelines for removing them and other chemicals. Nokia earned the top spot in the latest guide on the back of its work to eliminate BFRs and CFRs from all new phone and accessories. Sony Ericsson is a close second with having all of its products BFR-free. Philips, meanwhile, has eliminated BFRs from TVs, shavers and oral care products.

The flame retardants mentioned in the San Antonio Statement are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic, meaning they build up in the environment and linger. The chemicals can be found in blood, breast milk and human tissue. Some types of flame retardants that have been banned for upwards of three decades are still found in environmental samples.

The statement also mentions disposal of electronics that contain flame retardants, since improper disposal and burning can release those chemicals into the environment and expose humans to them. Along with releasing toxins when burned, the statement says, "their overall benefit in improving fire safety has not been proven."

The statement suggests changing products and industrial processes in order to avoid the use of flame retardants, in addition to finding alternatives that are not hazardous. Items that contain them, meanwhile, should only be disposed of in ways that destroy the persistent organic pollutant characteristics.

The statement also says to consider product stewardship and extended producer responsibility, concepts that put the responsibility of proper product disposal on the actual product makers, which is in turn expected to encourage companies to make safer products that are less of a danger when disposed of and less complicated to deal with.

Electronic fire - CC license by Flickr user Alfo23