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No Ignition, No Fire — Why Flame Retardants Are in Electronics

Owen P. Jappen

Do you know how many electronic devices you have in your home? Ten, twenty, thirty? From televisions, to smartphones, to computers and gaming systems, electronics are an everyday part of life at home. In fact, the average home contains more than 20 electronic products, scattered throughout the entire house.[1]

Striking the right balance between product safety and fire protection is an objective we share. Electronic manufacturers are balancing the need to meet consumer demand for smaller, lighter, and more powerful electronics with the need to ensure that those devices meet safety standards.

One way manufacturers increase fire safety is by using flame retardants chemistries in the internal components and enclosures of televisions, mobile phones, and a variety of appliances. For decades, flame retardants have provided an important layer of fire safety that can help save lives and property. But the effectiveness of these fire prevention chemistries is often overlooked and underappreciated.  Flame retardants in these products stop small ignition events from turning into larger fires — no ignition, no fire.

Fire prevention remains a serious public health issue. Between 2010 and 2014, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated annual average of 45,210 reported U.S. home structure fires involving electrical failure or malfunction.[2] These fires caused annual averages of 420 civilian deaths, 1,370 civilian injuries, and $1.4 billion in direct property damage.[3]

Since the introduction of strict fire safety standards in the U.S. — including those standards where flame retardants are a useful tool — fires have been reduced by over 50 percent, from 734,000 in 1980 to 363,000 in 2018.[4]

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that fire safety risk is still one of the key factors for product safety, because inappropriately designed products can increase fire risk. Since 2017, nearly three million units for a variety of electronic products have been recalled due to fire hazards.[5]

It is critical that any regulatory actions be based on credible scientific information. The recent claims by some regarding use of flame retardants in televisions are misleading, can undermine overall product safety, and may put consumers at risk. Rather than attacking the use of flame retardants, the focus should be on utilizing the appropriate safe chemistry — the right chemical for the right use.

Recently there has been a push by some organizations to regulate flame retardants as a group, suggesting that all of these types of chemistries, regardless of their toxicological profile are inherently dangerous.  Despite flame retardants all sharing the same function – retarding fires – their composition, and consequently the risk they might pose, can vary greatly from substance to substance. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences (NAS) has concluded that flame retardants cannot be evaluated as a single class.[6]

Flame retardants include a broad range of products with differing characteristics, formulations and intended uses, so it is not appropriate to group all these substances together or make broad conclusions on a diverse range of substances. The selection of specific flame retardants should be based on the right choice for a specific application that ensures chemical safety while also taking into account overall product performance and safety. Furthermore, while flame retardants are essential to product safety, they are in less than 5% of materials that compose electronics and electrical equipment, thus, electronics are not a significant source of exposure.[7]

The North American Flame Retardant Alliance (NAFRA) is committed to collaborating with downstream users, retailers, brand owners, and government regulators to support the safe manufacture and use of consumer products and to reinforce the value flame retardants bring to fire safety.

Flame retardants are used in electronics to provide essential fire safety protection. So it’s no surprise that they are found in TVs. In fact the surprise would be to not find these valuable materials as they help ensure the overall safety of electronics.

[1] CTA. Energy Consumption of Consumer Electronics in U.S. Homes in 2013.

[2] NFPA, “Home Electrical Fires,” March 2019. https://www.nfpa.org//-/media/Files/News-and-Research/Fire-statistics-and-reports/US-Fire-Problem/Fire-causes/osHomeElectricalFires.pdf

[3] TJ McCue, Forbes, “24 Electronic Products per Household – Got Recycling,” Jan. 2013. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tjmccue/2013/01/02/24-electronic-products-per-household-got-recycling/#dc139d82c2e6

[4] NFPA, “Fire Loss in the United States During 2018,” October 2019. https://www.nfpa.org//-/media/Files/News-and-Research/Fire-statistics-and-reports/US-Fire-Problem/osFireLoss.pdf

[5] U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Product Recall Database.

[6] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), “A Class Approach to Hazard Assessment of Organohalogen Flame Retardants,” May 2019.

[7] United Nations University, 2008 Review of Directive 2002/96 on WEEE, Aug. 2007.

American Chemistry Council

The American Chemistry Council’s mission is to advocate for the people, policy, and products of chemistry that make the United States the global leader in innovation and manufacturing. To achieve this, we: Champion science-based policy solutions across all levels of government; Drive continuous performance improvement to protect employees and communities through Responsible Care®; Foster the development of sustainability practices throughout ACC member companies; and Communicate authentically with communities about challenges and solutions for a safer, healthier and more sustainable way of life. Our vision is a world made better by chemistry, where people live happier, healthier, and more prosperous lives, safely and sustainably—for generations to come.