28 May 20

Eternal flame: The quest to ban toxic flame retardants

The battle to restrict the use of toxic flame retardants in consumer products goes on as industry lobbyists sue the European Commission. From fire fighters to health experts, campaigners are fighting back.

Flame retardants have become a contentious issue for European lawmakers.

The chemical industry behind bromine – a toxic substance that supposedly prevents burning – has long defended the use of flame retardants in consumer products.

But growing evidence that they may ‘create deadlier fires’ and lead to cancer and hormone disruption in adults as well as neurological deficit in children has brought together a wide range of interest groups.

Europe’s fire fighters, the furniture industry, recyclers and governments, who have joined several health and environmental experts world-wide, are now leading calls for a phase-out.

Campaigners have had some degree of success over the past few years, with the European Commission banning or restricting some of the toxic chemicals used as flame retardants.

Their latest win came in March, when the EU executive vowed “to address the unnecessary and unwanted use of chemicals” in products. The announcement was part of the Circular Economy Action Plan, known as the bloc’s masterplan for safer, longer lasting, and recyclable products.

However, just two days before the announcement, it became clear that the chemical industry was not going to stand and watch without putting up a fight.

A court case against the European Commission

The International Bromine Council (BSEF) is a small industry group affiliated to chemical powerhouse CEFIC and representing four chemical companies, only one of which is based in Europe.

In March this year, BSEF sued the European Commission in the European Court Justice following a decision to ban the use of halogenated flame retardants in the plastic casings and stands of electronic displays such as TVs and computer monitors.

The Commission had introduced the ban under the Ecodesign directive. It was the first time that this directive, which sets minimum sustainability requirements for energy products, prohibited the use of toxic chemicals. Back in 2018, member states voted unanimously to support the ban.

This move aimed to protect public health and improve recycling, therefore preventing toxic chemicals from being blended into consumer products. It was in line with the conclusions of several studies which had found the presence of halogenated flame retardants in kitchen utensils and even toys across Europe. Many of these flame retardants are classified as Persistent Organic Pollutants and are banned globally under the Stockholm Convention.

Yet BSEF saw the European ban as a threat to their business. In a statement, lobbyists lamented that the Commission was “exceeding the limits of its competence” and argued against “the lack of a proper impact assessment” through the REACH directive, which is the EU’s main policy framework to evaluate and restrict harmful substances.

The industry’s attacks raised some eyebrows amongst campaigners who saw two main problems with their position:

a)       REACH can only assess chemicals on an individual basis and leaves the door open for their replacement with slightly different but equally toxic chemicals. In contrast, Ecodesign mandates the phase-out of a whole class of substances from a group of products;

b)       The decision-making process concerning the evaluation of chemicals under REACH is characterised by long and unnecessary delays.

Fire fighters against flame retardants

In the meantime, BSEF has found the time to renew its attacks on campaigners too – namely Europe’s fire fighters, furniture industry and environmental NGOs, who have formed an alliance calling for a ban on flame retardants in furniture.

In a bizarre letter from April, BSEF rejected claims that flame retardants pose a risk to people’s health and hamper the recycling of chairs, sofas, tables, and so on.  Lobbyists failed to provide solid evidence – mostly because the toxicity of flame retardants is widely recognised – and argued that the use of flame retardants is needed for fire safety.

In fact, studies found that they can make fires more deadly by increasing their toxicity. In the UK, since the 1990s, most of the deaths and injuries inflicted by fires have been caused not from burns but by inhaling toxic smoke.

That is precisely why fire fighters, who are regularly exposed to smoke, are so keen on getting rid of them. As part of the Alliance for Flame Retardant Free Furniture, the European Fire Fighter Unions Alliance (EFFUA) has been pushing for the use of safer and more effective alternatives such as smoke detectors and sprinklers. Unlike flame retardants, they would give people enough time to escape while avoiding toxic dioxins.

The problem is that manufacturers currently use flame retardants to meet national flammability standards, according to the European Furniture Industries Confederation (EFIC). “As a producer, having to comply with several standards to be able to sell our products on the European market is unbearable,” said the group’s president Markus Wiesner in a statement.

The alliance has called for the harmonisation and relaxation of national flammability standards across the EU, which would make the use of toxic flame retardants in certain products obsolete. Similar laws were recently passed in the US states of California and Washington, where flame retardants in furniture are no longer required.

As the European Commission vows to address the spread of dangerous waste and toxic pollutants, campaigners continue to believe in a future where the use of flame retardants is strictly regulated. With policy-makers, science and even fire fighters on their side, it should not really be an impossible dream.