Parliament must bar toxic cadmium from Europe

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TVs containing cadmium are no longer available in Europe since a ban was decided under the 2002 Directive on Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in electrical and electronic equipment. But cadmium could return via the back door following intense lobbying efforts by some manufacturers, writes Michael Edelman.

By Michael Edelman, CEO United Kingdom-based Nanoco Group plc, a world leader in the development and manufacture of cadmium-free quantum dots and other nanomaterials.

Cadmium, a toxic substance and carcinogen regulated by the Directive on Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in electrical and electronic equipment, will be permitted in displays of televisions and other equipment destined for the European market if a controversial Delegated Act is implemented by MEPs during the week commencing 18 May 2015.

At the heart of the debate is whether new LCD televisions using cadmium-based quantum dot (QD) technology should be allowed into the European market. Quantum dots are tiny fluorescent particles that have optical properties used in televisions and other displays to improve colour quality of the picture and reduce power consumption.

Under a 2011 European Directive on RoHS, the use of cadmium in TVs and lighting was to be permitted until 1 July 2014, after which it would be illegal. However, in January 2015, the European Commission proposed a Delegated Act that would allow cadmium in televisions in Europe until June 2018. But since 2011, manufacturers have been conducting a managed withdrawal of products containing cadmium from the EU market to meet the original July 2014 deadline.

Today, TVs containing cadmium are not available in Europe – cadmium has been eliminated from European television markets.

This means that the Delegated Act currently under consideration would effectively reintroduce a toxic substance into a European market from which it has been successfully eradicated.

Cadmium is a highly toxic and carcinogenic by-product of zinc and copper production. It is one of six highly toxic substances banned from use in Europe in electrical and electronic equipment under a 2002 RoHS Directive designed to protect human health, the environment and facilitate recycling. Indeed, the RoHS Directive recognises the substance as the most hazardous toxic heavy metal, giving it a maximum allowed level 10 times lower than mercury and lead.

Nevertheless, it appears that significant lobbying efforts from manufacturers of cadmium-based QDs have resulted in this Delegated Act to exempt cadmium in QDs from the restrictions of the RoHS Directive in Europe for a further three years.

In the official report that recommended extending the exemption, published in April 2014 by the Öko-Institut for the Directorate-General for the Environment, estimates from segments of the cadmium industry stated that prototypes of cadmium free QD displays would not be available until 2019, with commercialisation in 2021. This is not the case. Products are now commercially available in the EU.

Cadmium-free technology has developed much faster than the cadmium industry forecast and what the Öko-Institut expected.

Since that report was published 12 months ago, CFQD (Cadmium Free Quantum Dots) technology has in fact already been successfully incorporated into commercial TVs. Samsung launched CFQD technology in its high end televisions in Europe earlier this year, and LG has announced that it will be launching CFQD products in the EU later this year.

The paramount consideration here, however, must be the safety of European consumers and protection of the environment. The proposed Delegated Act will effectively provide a three-year window between now and 2018 for non-European manufacturers to sell televisions containing cadmium on the European market and compromise the health and well-being of European citizens.

Indeed, Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland (Socialists & Democrats) noted at a meeting of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety committee meeting on 7 May 2015, that “there is a great deal of unease about the implications this might have on human health.”

In summary, extending the exemption of cadmium from RoHS regulation would effectively allow the potential exposure of EU citizens to toxic cadmium despite the commercial availability of safer cadmium free alternatives. It would also represent a significant step backward in European regulation of hazardous substances.

At the same time, allowing cadmium to be sold in Europe sends a strong signal that the EU does not support sustainable innovation, but condones the continued development of technologies that use highly hazardous materials.

A number of multinational and EU based organisations and enterprises have invested considerable efforts and resource to developing innovative cadmium free products – this proposed change to the law would completely undermine the stability necessary for substantial long term investments in new sustainable technologies.

In the interests of the well-being of all European citizens and the long-term promotion of safe and sustainable innovation in technology, we therefore strongly urge the European Parliament to block the passage of this Delegated Act and maintain a safe, cadmium-free environment for current and future generations of Europeans.