Electronics & Exposure

From phones to fridges, wires to washing machines our homes are full of electronic equipment. They make our lives easier and more enjoyable. But our demand for electronic devices also impacts our health and environment; from how they are produced, to the chemicals that leak out of them everyday, and the waste that electronics create.  At Fidra we explore how can we make our screens a little more green.

Chemicals in electronics cause inescapable exposure

Whether you are working from home, doing stay-at-home school or just trying to keep yourself entertained while staying in, you’ve probably been spending a lot of time in front of screens, plugged into earphones or glued to box sets. We are spending more time with ever more electrical equipment. Over the last few months everything from bread makers to home gym equipment and hair clippers have been flying off the shelves and into homes. But what will we do with these devices when we loose interest? What are the hidden risks of turning your home into an electronic emporium?

Electronic ingredients

Although screens are often maligned for impacting on everything from our eyesight to our attention span, their environmental impacts are often overlooked. Few us have considered what our electronics are made of, maybe some wires, a battery and a silicon chip?  Much of these basic components are made using rare metals that are running out. These are often mined at a high environmental and social costs. It is important we repair, reuse and recycle where safe to do so, to make the best use of this finite resource. Another essential ingredient in electronics is plastic. The casings, circuit boards, covers and cables are often different types of plastic. Light weight, protective and insulating plastic is essential to electronics, but it runs the risk of being flammable.  To address this, manufacturers add chemical flame retardants. In fact, so much flame retardant was added to one TV casing that these chemicals made up almost a third of the plastics total weight. The way flame retardants are added to electronics can also be very inefficient, with the chemicals only loosely bound rather than locked into the plastic itself. This means flame retardants can leak out into our homes, bodies and environment.

Flame retardants impact people when electronics are used and long after they are thrown away

Flame retardants are now found in dust, food chains, pets, wildlife, and human fat, body fluids and breast milk1-3. These chemicals can last a long time and build up in the environment, so flame retardants are likely to remain a risk to human health long after they escape from electrical products.  Flame retardants leaching from the UK’s e-waste stream is a global problem. When they leak from waste into the environment, they can quickly spread far and wide, building up in food chains. Our waste can be transported worldwide and illegal export is often linked to substandard incineration, recycling and disposal facilities.

Many flame retardants show serious adverse health effects, including abnormalities in neurological and reproductive development, or carcinogenic properties4,5. Some flame retardants are even more harmful when they degrade.  Studies have found flame retardants can be converted by heat to produce toxic dioxins and furans during recycling, incineration or if left exposed to sunlight on disposal. Theses chemicals have been associated with immune disorders and classified as possible human carcinogens6.

Although flame retardants are a worldwide health concern some people are at more risk than others. Flame retardant exposure is a particular concern for the health of infants and children, due to the increased risk of harm during early-year development. Meanwhile, workers in recycling, incineration and landfill facilities, as well as communities living near these facilities, are at risk due to their high level of exposure.

Flame retardants impact wildlife worldwide

As flame retardants last a long time in the environment and can be transported in the atmosphere, dust and in plastic waste, these chemicals have been recorded in wildlife across the globe. They have been found in UK seabirds and otter populations, seals in the Baltic Sea, Antarctic penguins, Arctic gulls and polar bears, flies in Japan, dolphins, orcas, porpoises and salmon7-14. Flame retardants are impacting species behavior, fertility and risking their survival. Flame retardants bioaccumulate, meaning they concentrate up food chains, with the risk of harm greatest for top predators.

Regrettable recycling

Some toxic flame retardants have reached such high levels in the environment that they have been banned. But, often when one chemical is banned, it is simply replaced with its next closest neighbour, which is likely to have similar impacts on our health and environment.

Even when we know of harm, there is a delay between the risk and toxicity being recognized and the removal of that chemical from market. Many newly restricted chemicals are still in the electronic equipment we currently use, and repair and reuse prolongs this issue.

Flame retardants make responsible recycling more difficult and expensive15. These chemicals can degrade the quality of plastic, making it less suitable for reuse. And when recycling is feasible, the separation of electronics, often containing a wide variety of different flame retardant chemicals, is hindered by the lack of accessible and transparent information on what a product contains. The burden currently lies with the recyclers, who have to use a variety of expensive methods to work out the chemical content of the waste electronics they have been given. If recycling isn’t done properly, harmful flame retardants end up in new products that have been made from the recycled plastic. Food packaging, toys and kitchen utensils have all been found to contain harmful flame retardants16-18. 

How we build a safe circular economy

We want to make sure you can repair, reuse and recycle products safely. But for electronics of the past, laden with banned flame retardants, and for the electronics of today that contain chemicals with as yet unknown consequences, we must proceed with caution.

Redesign with the right to repair, reuse and recycle

Products should be designed with fire safety in mind from the beginning, avoiding the unnecessary use of chemical flame retardants wherever possible. In doing so, we can create products that are safer for our health and our environment throughout their manufacture, use and disposal, whilst opening up a much wider range of opportunities for repair, reuse and recycling.

Where flame retardants are essential for product safety, chemicals need to be designed to perform their function without the risk of leaching into our homes and our environment. They need to fulfill their intended purpose for the lifetime of the product, yet breakdown safely when no longer required.


Collecting used electronics and ensuring that smaller items don’t languish in drawers, or end up in everyday waste, is undoubtedly a challenge. We need to make electronic disposal easy and convenient, and we need to ensure that information and instructions are clear and accessible to the right people, at the right time. This could mean incentives, such as discounts for instore trade-ins, that target the public when they are buying new electronics. If done correctly, rather than encouraging replacement and fast product turnover, incentives could encourage the return to manufacturer of obsolete or irreparable items, allowing components to be recovered for reuse. A move towards service models, rather than repeated purchase, is another way this could be achieved.

Recycling and waste

Once waste electronics and electrical equipment have been collected, they need to be sorted to ensure they are safe for reuse or recycling. For the products and waste created today, we can sometimes use scanning technology to separate those with harmful, banned chemicals, from those with materials that are safe for continued use. We can also invest in processes that remove flame retardants from plastic. But these techniques remove value from recycling, creating an economic platform that favours virgin materials and encourages wrongful disposal.

If chemical flame retardants are to continue being used in safe circular economy, they must be labelled. Users, reusers and recyclers need to be given the information necessary, in a accessible format, to allow them to make safe and informed decisions. And with new technologies and information systems rapidly evolving, the burden this might once have represented to industry is no longer a valid excuse for inaction.

What are Fidra doing to address flame retardants?

Today we’re addressing the Environmental Audit Committee. We’re telling MPs about the problems flame retardants pose and how we can address their use to build a safe and circular economy, focused on repair, reuse and recycling. We’ll be outlining the steps that need to be taken to stop harmful flame retardants getting into our environment, causing widespread exposure and health-related issues for both people and wildlife. We’re focused on the need for fire safety by design, the use of benign integrated flame retardants only where essential, and the provision of transparent and accessible information on chemical content. We’ll outline methods and actions that can help to tackle today’s e-waste problem, as well as legislative changes that can prevent us creating the toxic waste of tomorrow.

You can watch Fidra give evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, or read our written submission of evidence here.

And don’t forget to sign up to our newsletter below to receive updates on Fidra’s ongoing work.


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