Toxic cadmium one step closer to EU-wide ban

Cadmium battery inside a television. [S Woodside/Flickr}]

The European Parliament voted last week to re-assess the use of cadmium in TV sets sold across Europe, saying safer alternatives to the toxic and carcinogenic substance were now widely available.

Cadmium is widely used in illumination and display lighting applications such as LCD screens for television sets or desktop computers.

The substance was exempted from the EU directive on the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) because safer alternatives were not available at the time of adoption, in 2002. RoHS requires replacing heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, with safer alternatives, when available.

The European Commission had proposed extending the exemption until July 2017, arguing that cadmium-free quantum dots technology was not yet technically available.

But MEPs rejected that claim, saying it was “manifestly incorrect”.

“A whole line of TVs based on this technology has become widely available on the Union market, by well-known major retailers,” the MEPs said, rejecting the Commission proposal to extend the exemption.

MEPs also said an exemption for lighting was not justified, basing themselves on a study by the Öko-Institut, conducted on the Commission’s behalf.

The vote, held on Wednesday (20 May), was passed by an overwhelming majority, with 618 votes to 33 and 28 abstentions.

The rejection of the Commission proposal “does not ban cadmium” from European appliances, the Parliament said in a statement. “There are therefore no market distortions, as the current exemption remains valid until revoked,” it said.

Rather, the quantum dot technology will now undergo a new safety assessment, triggering a potentially lengthy lobbying battle.

Nanoco, a manufacturer of cadmium-free quantum dots and other nanomaterials, welcomed the Parliament decision. “We commend Parliamentarians on their resolve and understanding of how the market has changed since the Commission’s initial assessment,” said Michael Edelman, Nanoco’s Chief Executive Officer.

Others who lobbied against lifting the exemption will be less pleased. Jim Willis, the chair emeritus of the OECD Working Party on Manufactured Nanomaterials, said a ban on cadmium could decrease the energy efficiency of TV sets while promoting a new series of other toxic substances to replace it.

In an op-ed for EURACTIV, Willis said the risk of exposure to cadmium in television sets was “negligible” because cadmium-based quantum dots are sealed and coated, and therefore “not bioavailable”.

“The only alternatives to cadmium-based quantum dots in this application are indium-based quantum dots, which are considerably more toxic, less energy-efficient, less stable, and have a much poorer colour performance,” Willis wrote.

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