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Toxic TVs: Best Buy’s step in the right direction should go further

In brief:

  • Television makers put toxic flame retardant chemicals in televisions sold at retailers like Best Buy and Amazon.
  • The US Consumer Product Safety Commission has called for these chemicals to be phased out, and the European Union is banning them in TV enclosures.
  • Best Buy launched a chemicals policy in 2017 but didn’t publish the list of chemicals it is restricting until recently.
  • While a step in the right direction, the list of chemicals does not go far enough — it is woefully inadequate in addressing harmful flame retardants and other toxics.
  • In the year ahead, Best Buy must significantly expand its list of restricted chemicals and ban toxic flame retardants in the enclosures of all televisions it sells.

There’s no doubt there’s been a notable increase in TV-watching since COVID-19 has forced us to remain in our homes. Especially living in New York City, there really isn’t much else I’ve been able to do. Personally, my wife and I have enjoyed binge-watching classics like The Sopranos. But whether you’re binging on new hits like Tiger King and Love is Blind, or you’re taking on the unexpected role of childcare provider with assistance from shows from Disney Plus or PBS Kids, we all have something in common — television.

TVs have brought us joy and distraction amidst this terrible global pandemic. But, unfortunately, they’re hiding a dirty toxic secret.

For decades, television makers have been putting harmful chemicals into their products. Each year, they put millions of pounds of toxic organohalogen flame retardant chemicals (OFRs) in the plastic casings of televisions sold at major U.S. retailers like Best Buy and Amazon. Flame retardants in TVs constitute a large and growing source of unregulated toxic pollution in our homes, workplaces, and environment, and pose serious health threats.

But there is GOOD NEWS! This exposure is entirely preventable. Safer alternatives and innovative design solutions exist.

Toxic flame retardants can contaminate our homes, bodies, and the environment

Over the last few years, our Mind the Store campaign has been calling on major retailers like Best Buy and Amazon to cut toxic flame retardants from their products. Scientific studies link exposures to organohalogen flame retardant (OFR) chemicals to a number of negative health impacts, including thyroid disruption, cancer, and learning deficits. Now more than ever, this is concerning given that preventing chronic illnesses is critical as we face new challenges with diseases like COVID-19.

To make matters worse, the disposal of TVs containing OFRs can also release dioxins, which are among the most toxic chemicals known to science. According to the World Health Organization, “Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”

When those TVs are incinerated or “recycled,” dioxins can be released into the air that workers and frontline environmental justice communities breathe. In household fires, firefighters and other first responders can face potentially harmful exposures to flame retardants and dioxins, increasing their risk of developing cancer and other serious health problems. This is a key reason why firefighters have supported efforts to ban toxic flame retardants. The dioxins released through disposal can travel hundreds of miles through the air, getting into the oceans, fish, our food supply, and even our bodies.

Governments around the world have publicly acknowledged the health risks of both OFRs and dioxins. In 2017, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a guidance document calling on electronics manufacturers and retailers to “eliminate the use” of halogenated flame retardants in plastic casings. Last fall, the European Union announced it would ban the chemicals in TV casings in two years. And dioxins are targeted for phase-out by an international treaty.

Best Buy has taken some initial steps to address toxic chemicals

In August 2017, Best Buy launched a chemicals policy, which we lauded as a positive step to address toxic chemicals in electronics. In its policy, the company stated, “We seek to reduce the use of chemicals, phase out chemicals of concern and improve the general management of chemicals.”

At the time, the company did not release its list of chemicals restricted in products (known as a restricted substance list or RSL) or the list of chemicals restricted in manufacturing of its products (known as a manufacturing restricted substance list, or MRSL), despite its pledge to do so in 2016.

In the years since, we continued to encourage the company to publish its RSL and MRSL. In particular, we’ve asked Best Buy to reduce and eliminate organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs) and other toxic flame retardants in televisions and other electronics. Last May, we sent Best Buy a letter from more than 50 consumer and public health organizations calling on the company to act. A few months later, we released a report that found Best Buy and Amazon were both selling private-label televisions with significant concentrations of OFRs. We also sent a letter to Amazon and launched a petition urging Best Buy to eliminate flame retardants from its products.

After the release of our report and petition, we learned the company finally made good on its pledge to publicly release the RSL and MRSL. The company quietly posted these lists to its website earlier this year. We give Best Buy credit for finally being transparent about the chemicals it is restricting and requiring suppliers to disclose. We appreciate the company making good on its pledge.

However, our analysis reveals the RSL and MRSL do not go far enough. Best Buy must significantly expand its list of restricted chemicals in the year ahead, and ban toxic flame retardants in the enclosures of all private-label and brand-name televisions it sells.

Strengths and weaknesses of Best Buy’s RSL and MRSL

The updated chemical management statement includes three categories of substances the company is restricting or requiring disclosure of for its private-label products:

  • Substances that are restricted in Best Buy exclusive products (the company’s Restricted Substance List or RSL);
  • Substances that suppliers are required to report to Best Buy (apparently for exclusive products only); and
  • Substances restricted in the manufacturing of Best Buy products (the company’s Manufacturing Restricted Substance List or MRSL).

Let’s take a closer look at each of these three areas:

Substances that are restricted in Best Buy exclusive products

  • Strengths: The company has restricted a number of key compounds including heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium, short-chained chlorinated paraffins, and several ortho-phthalates including DEHP and DINP.
  • Weaknesses: The policy is woefully inadequate in addressing OFRs and other toxic flame retardants in televisions and other electronics. It primarily addresses flame retardants that have largely been phased out by global regulations already, such as PBDEs and HBCD. The policy also fails to address all ortho-phthalates as a class or PVC, the poison plastic, both of which are restricted by other major electronics brands and retailers (e.g. Apple and HP). And PVC is another significant source of dioxin. The company must address these and tighten up the restriction limits for certain substances, which are too high and could allow continued use of or contamination by highly toxic chemicals.

Substances that suppliers are required to report to Best Buy (for exclusive products only)

  • Strengths: The company requires reporting of brominated flame retardants, organotins, numerous ortho-phthalates, PVC plastic, and many other substances of concern, including those being regulated by California, Washington, and the EU.
  • Weaknesses: The reporting is only for exclusive products — the company should expand the reporting to a larger universe of products. The company should also require reporting of all types of flame retardants, ortho-phthalates, as well as all other plasticizers, to understand where these substances are being used. In addition, given the growing concern about PFAS, the company should add PFAS as a class to better understand where PFAS may be used in its supply chain.

Substances restricted in the manufacturing of Best Buy products

  • Strengths: The company restricts a handful of harmful chemicals such as benzene and n-methylpyrrolidone (NMP) that are potentially used during the manufacture of its products.
  • Weaknesses: Manufacturing restrictions based on chemical concentrations in workers’ breathing zones are extremely challenging to enforce given the complexity of the electronics supply chain, and may, therefore, leave workers inadequately protected. These chemicals instead should be outright banned in the MRSL. The company should also add the following list of hazardous solvents to be banned in the MRSL: bromodichloromethane, carbon tetrachloride (carbon tet), trichloromethane (chloroform), n-propyl bromide (nBP), methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), tetrachloroethylene (PCE or PERC), trichloroethylene (TCE), methylene chloride, and other chlorinated and brominated organic solvents. Additional solvents on lists included on the company’s reporting list should also be considered for restriction. The Toxics Use Reduction Institute at UMass Lowell (TURI) has an online resource for replacing toxic solvents.

Here’s how Best Buy can improve 

Now is the time for Best Buy to expand its chemical policy to finally ban organohalogen flame retardants and other toxic flame retardants, starting in private-label and brand-name televisions. As we rebuild our country, we need to think about ways we can build our resiliency. Preventing harm from toxic chemicals that can put us at greater risk for infectious diseases is an important piece of the puzzle.

Best Buy should set a deadline to expand the policy to a broader universe of products, starting with brand-name televisions. As it stands, the policy still only applies to its private-label electronics. We also recommend the company evaluate RSLs and MRSLs developed by leading electronics brands, such as Apple and HP, and consider aligning its RSL, MRSL, and list of chemicals to be reported with the most health-protective specifications these companies have set.

The next six months provide Best Buy with a clear opportunity to strengthen its policy, especially with our fifth annual Who’s Minding the Store? retailer report card coming out in November.

As North America’s top electronics retailer, Best Buy should take the lead on this issue.

Not just Best Buy: ALL leading electronic retailers and manufacturers must act

Best Buy is by no means alone in its responsibility to safeguard consumers, communities, and workers up and down the global electronics supply chain. Other major retailers like Amazon and Walmart, as well as other leading electronics brands such as Samsung and Hisense, must move swiftly to take action on toxic toxic flame retardants in televisions.

This is why we are officially expanding our campaign to call on a larger universe of electronics companies to act. On April 1, we sent letters to a dozen major television brands, such as Hisense, LG, Samsung, and SONY, urging them to ban toxic flame retardants in televisions. For example, see our letter to Samsung.

As always, we’re doing detailed research, tenaciously following up, and remaining steadfast in our determination for companies to be held accountable when it comes to unnecessary toxic chemicals in their products.

We’re committed to supporting your rights to a toxic-free environment.

We will publish a follow-up blog in the next few weeks summarizing the responses (and possibly some lack of responses) we received from the TV brands. So, please stay tuned! We are grateful for your support in reading and sharing our important work towards protecting public health.