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Call for electronics sector safety standard for environment, health

Products - electronics ©Amy Walters -

The electronics sector needs a product safety standard that focuses solely on environmental and human health impacts of products, including the adverse effects of chemicals.

Addressing delegates at Chemical Watch’s first electronics conference in San Francisco this month, Michael Kirschner, founder and president of consultancy Design Chain Associates, said that such a standard was missing.

Industry standards exist for thermal, electrical, optical and even acoustic product safety, he said, but "we need another formal product safety discipline" that focuses on meeting environmental and human health requirements that address chemicals of concern.

Emerging regulation

He said that because these standards do not address this area of safety, regulations emerge.

Except for a few major manufacturers, the industry lacks adequate chemical and toxicological expertise, said Mr Kirschner.

"This is what puts us as industry, along with others such as the toy, automotive and textiles sectors, at the mercy of regulators," he added.

Customers and environmental NGOs "are defining the path forward for environmental and human health performance and safety in electronic products and we don't really have a good seat at the table".

Regulations, he said, are being introduced that may "look good on paper" but are not necessarily implementable or, for example, that truly consider alternative substances.

"We have to expand our knowledge in this space," he said, adding that a standard in this field would set the rules for product designers, which could then lead to a drive in suppliers moving towards green and sustainable substances and materials.

He called on the larger electronics manufacturers who have the resources and capability to define this and start encouraging standard bodies towards development.

We need those with resources to fund it and populate it to properly define the scope, requirements and desired outputs, he said.

Safety first

As an example of where environmental and health concerns have been lacking, Mr Kirschner turned to product flammability regulations in the US. These have often led to manufacturers adding substances such as chlorinated or brominated flame retardants to certain products and materials.

In the 1970’s, some states, such as California, introduced regulations that required certain products to withstand flames for a specific amount of time. This saw the use of certain flame retardants rise in products, such as furniture and electronics. Flame retardants are often used in the plastic casings and cable materials of electronics products and equipment.

Since then, studies have suggested that some of these substances cause adverse effects to the environment and human health. This has led to authorities taking action on their use, including the US Consumer Product Safety Commission and states such as Massachusetts, Washington and California.

However, requirements still exist. Clause six of the International Electrotechnical Commission’s (IEC) 62368-1 standard requires most wiring and cable to comply with its flammability requirements.

"We implement clause six in order to ensure that our products meet flammability safety requirements. But the standard does not specify the materials to use or that you need to use flame retardants, it simply says you have to meet the requirement," he said.

"It certainly doesn't tell you whether and how to assess those materials for environmental and human health safety." 

Mr Kirschner stressed that developing a standard is "a long-term process".

"It isn’t something that can happen in a year. This, I believe, is five to ten years away."

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