EPA Project: Flame Retardants in Printed Circuit Boards Partnership

Circuit boards are commonly found in electronics in consumer and industrial products, including computers and cell phones. Manufacturers commonly produce circuit boards with flame-retardant chemicals to help ensure fire safety. Some flame-retardant chemicals, however, can be harmful if released into the environment.

To better understand the issue, under the umbrella, in February 2006, the electronics industry engaged with other stakeholders in a partnership with a project in the frame of "Design for the Environment" of the US Environmental Protection Agency EPA to assess the full range of options for flame retarding circuit boards. Around 35 partners are involved in the project; they represent industry (printed circuit boards, IT stakeholders, polymer and flame retardant manufacturers), industry and environmental organizations, institutes and academia.

Currently, over 90 percent of the printed circuit boards produced meet the UL 94 VO standard for fire safety as FR-4 boards. This is achieved by the use of brominated epoxy resins in which the reactive flame retardant tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) forms part of the polymeric backbone of the resin.

Alternative flame retardant materials are used in only 3-5 percent of the current FR-4 boards, but additional alternative flame retardant materials are also under development. Little information exists concerning the potential environmental and human health impacts of the materials which are being developed as alternatives to those used today that are based on brominated epoxy resins.

Environmental and human health impacts can occur throughout the life cycle of a material, from development and manufacture, through product use and finally at end of life of the material or product. In addition to understanding these potential impacts associated with flame retardant chemicals, stakeholders have expressed a particular interest in understanding the combustion products that could be formed during certain end of life scenarios.

The goal of this multi-stakeholder partnership is to identify and evaluate commercially available flame retardants and their environmental, human health and safety and environmental fate aspects in FR-4 printed circuit boards.

The partnership will incorporate life-cycle thinking into the project as it explores the potential hazards associated with flame retardants and potential exposures throughout the life cycle of flame retardants as used in FR-4 printed circuit boards. As appropriate, the scope will include aspects of the life cycle where public and occupational exposures could occur. For example, consideration of exposures from incineration or burning at the end of life will be included, as will exposures from manufacturing and use.

The initial hazard assessment is conducted using EPA's criteria for the New Chemical's Program to evaluate hazard concerns for each flame retardant formulation. Further work is conducted to investigate potential exposure scenarios during the product lifecycle. In addition to influencing design decisions, this information will inform industry and other stakeholders on environmentally preferable disposal or recycling scenarios.

 A draft report has been published in November 2000. The final report with the results from combustion by-product testing is scheduled for 2010.