The European Union originally wanted to ban the use of the flame retardant deca-bromodiphenyl ether (DecaBDE) in electrical and electronic appliances such as computers and TVs as of July 2006. This is with good reason, says the UBA, for DecaBDE is persistent and accumulates in living organisms. Traces have already been found in human breast milk and in numerous other animal species. However, the planned ban did not come to pass, for the European Commission overrode the regulation against the will of the European Parliament in the autumn of 2005; that is, before it could even enter into force. In January 2006 the EU Parliament and Denmark filed suit against this decision with the European Court of Justice. The UBA also supports a ban on use and has for many years recommended avoiding the use of DecaBDE on grounds that there are other less harmful alternatives that can be used without compromising on safety, e.g. halogen free organic phosphorus compounds or magnesium hydroxide.
Deca-bromodiphenyl ether is, second to tetrabromo bisphenol A (TBBPA), the most common brominated flame retardant produced worldwide, with a 56,000 tonnes/year production volume. Some 80 percent end up in the plastics used in electrical and electronic equipment. DecaBDE has already been subject to human health and environmental risk assessment as regulated by the EU Existing Substances Regulation since 1994, which states that no acute risk is posed to most environmental media, for example water and air. On the other hand, there is need for more research to be done as concerns its impact on soils and sediments. No acute health risk from DecaBDE in television sets or office equipment was determined, but there was a series of peculiarities which the UBA believes makes it necessary to forego the use of DecaBDE. This includes very high persistence (it is very slow to biodegrade) and its potential to accumulate in the environment. Widespread traces in the environment provide the evidence, for traces of the flame retardant have been found in a number of living organisms, for example in birds of prey and their eggs, in polar bears, seals, foxes, and in human breast milk. It has not as of yet been proven beyond doubt how DecaBDE gets there. UBA believes that substances which are either persistent in the environment or have high accumulation potential in organisms should generally not be discharged to the environment.
As concerns risk assessment, some questions about the health and environment impact of DecaBDE have been left unanswered. In an experiment on mice, certain neurotoxic effects of the flame retardant were determined which a follow-up study aims to clarify.
There are further indications that DecaBDE does partially biodegrade in the environment to the lesser brominated and more toxic chemicals penta or octabromodiphenyl ether. On account of their harmful effects, the sale and use of these substances have been banned in the EU since 2004. What is more, the UBA believes that a ban on the use of DecaBDE in electrical and electronic appliances is called for due to the fact that unchecked disposal of electronic waste can lead to the formation of highly toxic substances such as dioxins and furans. In the name of precautionary and sustainable chemicals policy, the UBA recommends not using DecaBDE.
The use of DecaBDE in electronic and electrical appliances was supposed to be banned as of 1 July 2006, as originally determined by EU Directive 2002/95/EC on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment (RoHS Directive), which applied to decaBDE and other brominated flame retardants. However, the European Commission can allow certain exceptions to this prohibition on use should substitution not be technically or scientifically possible, or should the substitute be even more toxic than the original substance. Neither case applies to DecaBDE, however, which is why Denmark and the EU Parliament believe the EU Commission’s revocation of the prohibition on use is unlawful.
A number of progressive companies have done without the use of decaBDE for years, and some have even forgone the use of all brominated flame retardants. Instead they are using less harmful flame retardants, including some halogen free organophosphorus compounds, magnesium hydroxide, red phosphorus, metal phosphinates or nitrogen-based flame retardants, or they have altered their equipment design. In Germany plastics manufacturers who are members of the Association of the Plastics Producing Industry (VKE) have made a voluntary agreement not to use decaBDE since 1986.
More information on DecaBDE and other flame retardants is available at http://www.umweltbundesamt.de/produkte/flammschutzmittel/index.htm
Dessau, 26 March 2007