Hazardous substances reduced but not eliminated from laptops

Feature story - October 24, 2007
Our investigation into hazardous materials in laptops shows that manufacturers have phased out use of some of the most toxic materials but still have a long way to go in eliminating others, such as PVC, brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and phthalates.

We wanted to know exactly how much progress had been made on toxics in laptops in the last year. We purchased 18 laptops from Acer, Apple, Dell, HP, Sony and Toshiba in 14 countries in Europe, the Americas and Asia and sent them for analysis by an independent laboratory and at our Exeter Research Laboratories.

The report, "Toxic chemicals in computers - Reloaded", show bromine present in over 40 percent of the components tested, at concentrations of up to 10 percent by weight. Of the components tested, Sony laptops were found to have the lowest number containing bromine, and Dell laptops had the highest.

PVC was found in 44 percent of all plastic coating internal wires and external cables that were tested. Phthalates were found in the power cables supplied with all laptops, with the highest levels in those of Acer and HP laptops.

The new report follows up our investigation into toxics in laptops sold in Europe in 2006, before EU legislation on hazardous substances in electronic equipment, known as RoHS. With the implementation of RoHS, computer manufacturers have significantly reduced their use of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium and certain brominated flame retardants.

The good news is these changes have been implemented by all companies and not only for the European market where it is a minimum legal requirement. The analysis from this reoprt shows that, for almost every component found to contain either bromine or plastic PVC, an equivalent component free of these chemicals can be found in another laptop.

First computer free of the worst toxic chemicals?

In theory, by combining components from different machines, the industry could already almost produce the first computer free of the worst toxic chemicals. The question is, which company is going to be the first to go the whole way?

"While levels of certain toxic chemicals in the laptop components tested do not exceed current European standards, other hazardous chemicals found in laptops are not yet covered by European regulations," said Zeina Alhajj, Greenpeace International toxics campaigner.

Greenpeace's goal is for computer manufacturers to eliminate the use of toxic materials completely.

"The results demonstrate that legislation in one region can have an influence even in countries where it does not yet apply. However, even where they do exist, current laws fail to regulate all hazardous chemicals in laptops, or in other electrical equipment, "said Dr. Kevin Brigden from the Greenpeace Research Laboratories who oversaw the sampling analyses and produced the report. "Laws which aim to protect human health and the environment must ultimately address all hazardous substances," he added.

Who's making the most progress?

We have been working since 2004 to push all the computer companies mentioned in the report to eliminate the worst toxic chemicals. They have all published plans to drop these chemicals in 2008/9 (with the exception of HP) from all their products. These plans form part of the companies' scores in our Guide to Greener Electronics.

Our ranking guide also scores companies on whether they have already computer models free of PVC and BFRs on the market. Based on this criterion, out of the computer companies whose laptops we tested, Sony scores highest followed by Toshiba.

On the basis of this test, it seems Sony is closest to the goal of eliminating toxic chemicals from computers. Apple is making progress since the last test but Dell, HP and Acer still have the most work to do.