Did you know that your furniture, clothes and electronic devices can contain harmful chemicals? The most common ones are halogenated flame retardants. The good news is that plastic in TV screens will be free of them thanks to new Ecodesign rules that the EU is likely to adopt shortly.1 Let me explain why at Forbrugerrådet Tænk we think it is great progress for both consumers and the environment.
Harmful without a doubt
For decades, manufacturers have been adding ‘flame retardants’ to all sorts of consumer products. Over time, the case against those chemicals has been mounting and the fact that they are dangerous to people and to the environment is becoming more and more evident. Not all flame retardants are problematic though. It’s the halogenated ones which are particularly to blame.
Research has shown that these chemicals do not break down in nature, and therefore there is a risk that they can accumulate in our bodies and cause long-term health problems, such as infertility, cancer, or hormone disruption. They ‘travel’ big distances from where they leached out, to unexpected places such as breast milk, blood or rivers.
Safety first Vs health first
Despite the health evidence piling up, the chemical industry keeps fighting to ensure those chemicals can still make their way into consumer products. Their argument is that flame retardants are safe and keep consumers safe from fires. In the US, the industry claims that flame retardants are needed to keep firefighters safe, even though in many States firefighters themselves favour banning these chemicals.
You might wonder what will prevent our houses from going up in flames if these chemicals are banned from everyday products. First, not all consumer products need flame retardants. Children products for instance are very unlikely to burst into flames. Second, when products are likely to overheat, such as electronics, safe chemical alternatives exist. In short, it is possible to live without harmful flame retardants.
Fortunately, decision makers are beginning to heed our calls. Restrictions of many flame retardants are in place in the EU for certain products. However, those problematic substances are still found in products where they are not supposed to be.
At Forbrugerrådet Tænk, we have been testing products for flame retardants for years. We have especially found toxic substances where parents would hope not to have them, such as in baby carriers, baby car seats, balance bikes and foam toys. Young children are unsurprisingly more vulnerable to chemicals’ effects, and flame retardants can impair their motor and mental development.
What complicates the situation is that flame retardants can be legally used in recycled plastics. Last year, with 20 organisations across Europe we put plastic toys under our microscope. Almost half of the samples we tested (50 out of 109) contained the flame retardant OctaBDE.2 This chemical most probably comes from the recycling of used computers and other electronic waste.
While this substance can be present in new plastic only in tiny amounts, the law is more lenient for recycled plastics. In short, chemicals that are banned today still end up in our hands because they are being recycled into new products. This toxic loophole greatly hampers the EU’s goal of creating a circular economy where discarded products can be reused or recycled into safe new products.
Chemicals that are banned today still end up in our hands
because they are being recycled into new products.
By banning halogenated flame retardants in the plastic surrounding TV screens the new Ecodesign measures will help close this loophole. One of the reasons behind this ban is to make recycling easier. But we also need new, stringent controls on chemicals in consumer products, whether they are made from virgin or recycled materials.
Small step, big impact
Electronic displays may only be a small part of the millions of consumer products out there, but this Ecodesign ban is another step towards phasing out these chemicals. Each new ban will make it increasingly difficult for manufacturers to use these harmful chemicals, and they will have to turn to safer alternatives.
The science is clear. Flame retardants constitute a risk to people and to the planet, and often they can be avoided or substituted with safe alternatives. So, let’s stop using them and make the future free from toxic flame retardants.
Claus Jørgensen is Chemical expert at Forbrugerrådet Tænk, the Danish Consumer Council.
 The new measure will ban harmful halogenated flame retardants from the rims (’enclosures’) and stands of electronic displays. See legal text here.
 ‘Toxic Loophole, Recycling Hazaradous Waste into new Products’, 2018.