Assessment tool addresses sustainability of flame retardants in real-world environments

When brominated flame retardants came under attack from environmental activists many years ago, the chemical industry's response was defence was based on pure scientific knowledge. "With a lot of misconceptions and emotions arising that were difficult to address [through this approach], we weren't very successful," concedes Avi Ben Zvi, Manager of New Product Development at leading flame retardant supplier ICL Industrial Products (Beer-Sheva, Israel). ICL hopes its latest initiative to address safety issues with such flame retardants will have more success.


ICL's Zvi (left) with ICL's Business Unit Manager, Flame Retardants, Limor Ostrovsky.

Called SAFR, for Systematic Assessment for Flame Retardants, the framework is a risk-based methodology to assess the extent to which the potential hazards of substances translate into potential risks due to possible exposure to humans and/or to the environment. SAFR was officially launched at the recent Chinaplas show in Guangzhou.

SAFR enables the entire value chain to assess the sustainability profile of individual flame retardants according to their intended use. For example, a flame retardant employed in a circuit board inside a cell phone would have a different risk profile to one employed in the cell phone housing that frequently comes into contact with the users hands and ears.

Hazard assessment is carried out based on defined end points using internationally recognized hazard definitions (mainly GHS - Global Harmonized System and REACH). Both environmental and human health end points are addressed.

Exposure assessment to additive blooming and leaching is carried out for each flame retardant per application and use. The exposure assessment is based on level of contact during intended use and potential emissions.  ICL has developed accelerated tests for blooming and leaching.

There are four possible outcomes: uses that are either recommended, acceptable, not recommended, or present an unacceptable hazard. In the latter case, the product should be phased out. ICL is also deploying SAFR in new product development. "In fact we've discontinued development of some products when we found that their risk profiles were unacceptable," says Zvi. SAFR will recommend the most sustainable flame retardant to be used. ICL has reviewed 70% of its portfolio using SAFR with the remaining products to be reviewed by the end of 2015.

"Although SAFR is an ICL initiative, we are encouraging other suppliers and end users to adopt," says Zvi. "We will disclose all the relevant information including the methodology to them." To date, interest from ICL's peers has been limited but large global end users have embraced the idea. "Some are looking at it as a tool not only for flame retardants, but for other additives," says Zvi.

Zvi also emphasizes that SAFR is objective and not in ICL's vested interests. "Cardno Chemrisk, a global consulting partner specializing in risk assessments, conducted a third party review of SAFR in 2014, and we've also incorporated feedback from customers and NGOs," he explains. "During the summer of 2015, a panel of experts from the Alliance for Risk Assessment will also review SAFR."

Moving forward, ICL's research efforts are focusing on developing flame retardants that are either large polymers or reactive ones that are chemically integrated into polymer backbones forming flame retarded polymers. For such additives, exposure is expected to be low, the potential for leaching is low due to low extractability in water, there is low blooming potential due low probability to migrate to surface of plastic during ageing, and there is low potential for bioaccumulation as their high molecular weight makes them unlikely to penetrate cell membranes. Reactive flame retardants will behave like polymeric FRs once fully reacted.


The decision matrix for Systematic Assessment for Flame Retardants

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