Greenpeace: HP stands for 'harmful products'

Demonstrating at HP headquarters, group calls for ban on brominated flame retardants.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read
PALO ALTO, Calif.--Stepping up attempts to pressure electronics makers to stop using fire prevention compounds suspected of being hazardous, Greenpeace on Tuesday staged a protest outside the Hewlett-Packard headquarters here.

In front of HP's main driveway, about 20 protesters handed out leaflets and raised a small blimp with a slogan written on the side: "HP: Harmful Products."

The demonstration is part of Greenpeace's efforts to get electronics makers to cease using brominated flame retardants. Scientists suspect some of those materials of being carcinogens; some have been banned in Europe.

Iza Kruszewska, Greenpeace's toxics campaigner, said that Dell and Apple Computer also use brominated flame retardants in their products and the group may go after them in the near future.

"We want to see innovation and safer materials," said Kruszewska, standing outside HP's headquarters. "We're seeing computer memories increasing, we're seeing improvements in computer features. We want to see the same kind of creative thinking in providing safety."

Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman, declined to discuss Greenpeace's accusations, but referred a reporter to the company's policy on brominated flame retardants. In essence, it says that Apple doesn't use any banned substances.

In a statement on its Web site, Apple says that it uses tetrabisphenol A, or TBBA, a type of brominated flame retardant, for some of its circuit boards. The company noted that it's common industry practice. "However, we are actively researching equally effective alternatives with better environmental features than TBBA," according to the company's policy.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has in the past defended the company's record on recycling and other environmental concerns.

Calls to Dell Computer were not returned, but earlier this year the company said it would avoid using brominated flame retardants and that it had eliminated the use of halogenated flame retardants in desktop, notebook and server chassis plastic parts.

David Lear, HP's vice president of corporate, social and environmental responsibility, praised his company's environmental record. He noted that HP stopped using some types of brominated flame retardants a decade before they were banned by the European Union.

But Lear pointed out that the flame retardants in question were designed to prevent fires and save lives, and that Greenpeace is oversimplifying the issue.

"We haven't found a viable alternative," Lear said. "We think we need to help the industry find a long-term solution. Some companies have said they found one. But if they had, they would have used it across their product lines. They haven't."

Lear also emphasized that nobody has proven that the materials in question are dangerous.

"If you go to the health departments in the 171 countries we operate (in), this is an approved material used for safety in countless products."

Brominated flame retardants are used in many consumer products, including appliances and automobiles. These chemicals were designed to slow ignition and rate of a fire and the U.S. Environment Protection Agency has found that the most common brominated retardant, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, do not pose an unreasonable risk to the environment or human health.

But in the late 1990s, a study in Sweden reported that the levels of PBDEs found in breast milk had increased exponentially since the early 1970s. Levels have jumped in salmon and whales, studies show. According to research out last year, traces of brominated fire retardants turned up in chemical residue found in dust samples swiped from computers and other electronics devices.

The problem with PBDEs is that they are similar in chemical makeup to polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which have been found to promote cancer in lab animals.

"There are some incomplete animal studies that some PBDEs, structurally and toxicologically, seem to be similar to PCB," said Arnold Schecter, an environmental sciences professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas. He co-authored a 2004 report that found that flame retardants were found in U.S. supermarket food in larger-than-expected amounts.