The European Parliament and Council decision on the reform of the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Regulation announced this week, hailed as protective for health, will keep children exposed to hazardous flame-retardant chemicals associated with thyroid disruption and neurological deficits. Under the agreement, high levels of hazardous brominated flame retardants that are present in electronics waste, including those already banned by the Stockholm Convention, will be allowed in recycled plastics.
The new rules allow 500 mg/kg of brominated flame retardants listed for global elimination under the Stockholm Convention in mixtures and articles. Environmental health researchers from Arnika, HEAL, and IPEN demonstrated that toxic brominated flame retardants are entering the waste stream from discarded electronics. These chemicals, known to disrupt the thyroid function and cause neurological and attention deficits in children, were found in a concerning number of children’s products and other consumer products made from recycled plastics across Europe. With this limit, the European Parliament and Council accept to leave our children at risk of contamination from persistent organic pollutants – chemicals that the Stockholm Convention aims to eliminate globally due to health and environmental concerns.
The recent report Toxic Loophole: Recycling Hazardous Waste into New Products found that 92 % of laboratory tested consumer products, including toys, purchased in 19 European countries are contaminated with flame retardants known as BDEs (which primarily come from recycled electronic waste). Ironically, 64 % of the tested products will be legal because of the unreasonably high limit set by the EU.
“The EU’s agreed limit of 500 mg/kg for these substances in mixtures and articles is a permission slip to contaminate children’s toys with toxic flame retardants. Do members of the European Parliament and Council find it acceptable that our children play with persistent organic pollutants designated for global elimination?” asked lead study author Jitka Strakova, a researcher from Arnika who specializes in POPs.
The limits set in the European Parliament and Council agreement constitute a loophole, say researchers, that will allow a set of toxic chemicals to persist and harm health.
“Recycling toxic chemicals into new products undermines the entire concept of a circular economy. This calls for strong action from European decision-makers to eliminate them once and for all. BDEs are nothing to play with. Those endocrine disruptors are responsible for attention and neurological deficits in children,” said Genon Jensen, co-author of the study and Executive Director of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).
“The new EU rules conflict with obligations under the Stockholm Convention which prohibit the recycling of articles containing DecaBDE”, said Joe DiGangi, Senior Science and Technical Advisor at IPEN. “This sets the stage for a conflict at the upcoming Conference of the Parties by positioning the EU as advocates for toxic recycling.”
Dioxins, another group of highly hazardous substances, can form unintentionally as flame retardant chemicals in plastics are heated and remolded in the recycling process. The study Toxic Soup: Dioxins in Plastic Toys demonstrates that contamination through the recycling of BDEs also introduces dioxins into recycled plastics products, which is an additional reason to keep BDEs out of waste.
“Dioxin content in a toy tested from Germany contained levels similar to those found in waste incineration fly ash. Brominated dioxins are highly hazardous chemicals that are known to affect brain development, damage the immune system and unborn children, increase the risk of cancer and risk disruption of thyroid function,” explains Jindrich Petrlik, the lead author of the study, Executive Director of Arnika – Toxics and Waste Programme, and Co-Chair of IPEN’s Dioxin, PCBs, and Waste Working Group. “POPs wastes are highly hazardous and need to be strictly controlled. The EU has failed to do that.”