Trending Topics: Flame Retardants, Part 4—Safer Alternatives for Electronics

Trending Topics: Flame Retardants, Part 4—Safer Alternatives for Electronics image

In the final part our 4-part series on flame retardants (FRs), we look at safer alternatives to FRs used in electronics that are of high concern to human health and the environment. Our previous Trending Topics on FRs provided snapshots of health effects & markets, government restrictions, and “are they necessary?”.


BFRs in Electronics & Electrical Devices image

Electronics and electrical devices account for 50% of global brominated flame retardant (BFR) consumption. The dominant end uses of BFRs in electronics are in cabinets, housings and printed circuit boards—together they account for roughly 80% of all electronics’ consumption of BFRs. Other end uses of BFRs in electronics include connectors and relays, and wire and cable insulation. In previous Trending Topics we detailed the health effects of BFRs used in electronics (notably the PBDEs) and the “whack-a-chemical” trend in government regulation of halogenated (bromine- or chlorine-based) FRs.

Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) is the BFR most widely used in electronics. Decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE), another BFR, was once widely used in electronics, but its restriction in Europe and voluntary phase-out by manufacturers in the US and Canada has dramatically its reduced use.

Safer FRs for Electronics & Electrical Devices

Many alternatives to decaBDE and TBBPA in electronic applications are now available. Apple, Sony Ericsson, and Nokia have phased out BFRs in all their products, while HP, Acer, Samsung, and many other electronics firms have greatly reduced their use of BFRs (See Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, 2012). To move away from use of chemical flame retardants, some electronics manufacturers shifted to materials less inherently flammable than plastic for some components—for example, using metal rather than plastic for housings of notebook computers.

Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) in Electronics & Electrical Devices, & Safer Chemicals
End Use BFRs Alternatives GreenScreen Benchmark
Cabinets & Housings Decabromo-diphenyl ether (decaBDE), Tetrabromo-bisphenol A (TBBPA), and other BFR compounds - Aluminum diethylphosphinate
- Aluminum hydroxide
- Melamine polyphosphate
- Poly[phosphonate-co-carbonate]
- Red phosphorous
- Resorcinol bis-diphenylphosphate
- Triphenyl phosphate
2
- Aluminum hydroxide
- Melamine polyphosphate
3
Printed Circuit / Printed Wiring  Boards TBBPA and
other BFRs
- Aluminum hydroxide
- Melamine polyphosphate
2
- Magnesium hydroxide 3
- DOPO
- Proprietary chemistry - Fyrol PMP based on aryl alkylpolyphosphonate
- Proprietary chemistry - Exolit OP 930 based on metal phosphinates
not available
Sources
- Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse, Chemical Hazard Assessment Database
- TCO Development
- USEPA DfE, DRAFT Flame Retardants in Printed Circuit Boards (2008)
USEPA DfE, An Alternatives Assessessment for the Flame Retardant Decabromodiphenyl Ether (DecaBDE) (2014)

The dominant trajectory in making electronics fire-resistant is to use chemical alternatives to brominated and chlorinated flame retardants—also known as halogenated flame retardants (HFRs). Since very few chemicals are low for all hazard endpoints as well as fate (persistence and bioaccumulation), the goal is to identify safer alternatives.

The table above lists some of the non-HFR alternatives for cabinets, housings and printed circuit / wiring boards. GreenScreen® assessments of the alternatives reveal some to be safer than the existing halogenated chemicals of concern. Three of the alternatives for which GreenScreen assessments are publicly available—ammonium polyphosphate, magnesium hydroxide, and polyphosphonate—score Benchmark 3, which means the chemical has low to moderate hazard characteristics. The GreenScreen benchmarks run from “1” (avoid chemical of high concern) to “4” (prefer-safer chemical). The GreenScreen assessments can also be found in the Interstate Chemical Clearinghouse’s Chemical Hazard Assessment Database. And TCO Development lists 11 “Certified Accepted Substances” for alternatives to HFRs.

US EPA DfE Alternatives Assessments

Thorough reviews of alternatives to decaBDE in electronics and TBBPA in printed circuit boards are available from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Design for Environment (DfE) program.

The US EPA DfE report on decaBDE alternatives provides a comprehensive list of alternative chemicals. The most preferred alternatives are those that score GreenScreen Benchmark 3—ammonium polyphosphate, magnesium hydroxide, and polyphosphonate.  Polyphosphonate scores low on all hazard attributes, with the only downside being fate—it scores very high for persistence. And ammonium polyphosphate and magnesium hydroxide both score low for all hazard endpoints, except eye irritation for which they are of moderate concern; they also score very high for persistence. BizNGO added to the literature on decaBDE alternatives with a draft life cycle review of alternatives. This research found that all of the non-HFR alternatives have at least moderate impacts from raw material extraction and, with the exception of aluminum housings, have moderate end-of-life management impacts.

The EPA’s DfE assessment on FRs in printed circuit boards is still in draft pending additional review. Of the non-halogen alternatives, DOPO had no endpoints of high concern. Two proprietary chemistries, Fyrol PMP and Exolit OP 930, score low or moderate concern for all hazards, and score high for fate—both are highly persistent.


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