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Flame Retardants: Lesson learned from exploding laptops

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Lessons learned from exploding laptops

Patrick Moore, PhD

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

As co-founder and for 15 years an international leader of Greenpeace, and more recently as a sustainability consultant, I’ve spent all my adult life advancing a consistent green policy framework.

Yet juxtaposing news items have left me wondering whether anybody else is thinking about a consistent set of policies for the future of environmentalism.

On the one hand, Dell is recalling 4.1 million laptop computer batteries, marking the largest safety recall in the history of the consumer electronics industry. Apple, IBM, Lenovo, Toshiba and Fujitsu have since announced laptop battery recalls.

Due to the defective batteries, laptop fires have been reported from L.A. International Airport, a Silicon Valley college, a conference in Osaka, a Tetra Pak office in Illinois, a pickup truck in Nevada, a Lufthansa airplane and a family home in Ontario.

These so-called “exploding laptop” stories have been widely covered.

On the other hand, Dell has bowed to activist pressure by agreeing to phase out brominated flame retardants (BFRs) from their consumer electronics by 2009. According to Greenpeace, HP, Nokia, LG, Samsung, Sony and Ericsson have committed to phasing out the chemicals sooner.

Further, Canada’s federal government has declared Deca—a safe, effective and commonly used BFR—toxic according to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

These conflicting news stories tell me we’ve all got work to do. Journalists have yet to draw a parallel between burning laptops and the consequences of phasing out brominated flame retardants.

Activist-funded studies show trace amounts of the compounds can be measured in humans. Yet these measurements are in parts per million, or parts per billion. No harm to human health or the environment has been documented.

Every year, BFRs save thousands of lives worldwide. Particularly important in schools, hospitals, automobiles and airplanes, BFRs reduce both the spread of fire and the threat of ignition, and give people more time to escape injury.

Last year, Air France flight 358 skidded off the runway at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. The plane caught fire, yet all 309 passengers survived; flame retardants gave them time to escape.

BFRs are added or blended into materials in solid form, not gas form, so the opportunity for human exposure is extremely small. Following extensive risk assessments in both the European Union and the United States, the most commonly used BFR has been proven safe.

My old colleagues at Greenpeace are leading the charge against BFRs, when no alternative flame retardants demonstrate greater health, safety and environmental benefits. Greenpeace is threatening laptop manufacturers who continue to use BFRs—and congratulating others who wrongly phase them out, such as Dell.

Given recent “exploding laptop” incidents, I urge electronics manufacturers not to bow to misguided activist pressure, and to err on the side of proven fire safety.

The demonstrated risk to the public from fire must be weighed against any demonstrated health or environmental risks of using BFRs in products.

A federal classification of flame retardants as toxic needlessly puts people’s safety at risk, when there is simply no evidence of human harm.

- An advisor to government and industry, Dr. Patrick Moore is chair and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. in Vancouver.

www.GreenspiritStrategies.com

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