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European Parliament Rejects Proposed RoHs Amendment to Allow Continued Use of Cadmium in TVs, Computer Monitors

On 20 May 2015, the European Parliament rejected the Commission’s proposal to extend the period during which cadmium can be used in illumination and display lighting appliances such as television sets and computer monitors.

The Commission’s proposal came about in the form of a Commission delegated directive which would amend Annex III to Directive 2011/65/EU (the RoHS Directive) as regards an exemption for cadmium in illumination and display lighting applications. The proposal was rejected by an overwhelming majority at the European Parliament, with 618 votes against the proposal, 33 for and 28 abstentions.

Cadmium is widely believed to be a toxic and carcinogenic substance which is the by-product of zinc and copper production. Cadmium is widely used in display lighting and illumination applications in the form of quantum dots. Common examples of such display lighting and illumination applications are LCD screens, which are used in televisions or desktop computers.

In general, whether made of cadmium or otherwise, quantum dots are tiny fluorescent particles that have optical properties which are used in televisions and other displays. They improve the quality of the image colour so are therefore very appealing to consumers. Quantum dots also reduce energy consumption of appliances by more than 20%, which leads to both potential savings of more than €3 billion in energy costs per year and to preventing the emission of 7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

Cadmium is one of six highly toxic substances that have already been banned from use in Europe, in virtually all electrical and electronic equipment, under the RoHS Directive. The RoHS Directive qualifies cadmium as the most hazardous toxic heavy metal – its maximum allowed level is ten times lower than that of mercury and lead.

Under the 2011 recast RoHS Directive, the use of cadmium in televisions and lighting had been exempted until 1 July 2014 by Exemption 39 of Annex III of the RoHS Directive. However, in line with the provisions of Article 5(3) and Annex V of the RoHS Directive for granting, renewing or revoking an exemption, which allow stakeholders to apply for an exemption of the restricted substance, the Commission received requests to extend the exemption. In accordance with Article 5(5) of the RoHS Directive, the existing exemption, although technically expired, remains valid until the Commission had made its decision on the renewal application.

In January 2015, the European Commission proposed extending the exemption for cadmium from the RoHS restriction until July 2017. The European Commission argued that cadmium-free quantum dot technology, i.e. a reliable technical alternative, is not technically available yet. The Commission based itself on a report issued by the Öko-Institut on its behalf. The report, which was published in April 2014, estimates that prototypes of cadmium-free quantum dots would not be available until 2019, with commercialisation following in 2021.

However, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) rejected this claim. MEPs considered that the Commission was “manifestly incorrect” and that safer alternatives are, in fact, readily available.

A resolution opposing the Commission’s proposal was drafted by several MEPs on 13 May 2015. Their main concerns were the safety of European consumers and the protection of the environment. Pointedly, at a meeting of the Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee on 7 May 2015, Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland of the Socialists & Democrats stated that “there is a great deal of unease about the implications [the Commission’s proposal] might have on human health”. In effect, according to these MEPs, extending the exemption of cadmium in the RoHS Directive would allow EU consumers to potentially be exposed to a hazardous toxin, even though there are safer cadmium-free alternatives commercially available.

In rejecting the Commission’s proposal to extend the exemption, the MEPs said that “A whole line of TVs based on this [cadmium-free quantum dot technology] has become widely available on the Union market, by well-known major retailers”. Indeed, cadmium-free technology has developed much faster than was predicted by the Öko-Institut report. Since April 2014, when the latter’s report was published, cadmium-free quantum dot technology has apparently been incorporated into televisions with great success. A number of multinational and EU based organisations and enterprises are said to be investing considerable efforts and financial resources into the development of innovative cadmium-free products.

For example, Samsung reportedly launched a high-end television with cadmium-free quantum dot technology in Europe earlier this year. Similarly, LG plans to launch various cadmium-free quantum dot products before 2016. All this competition in the sector is, according to the MEPs, leading to the development of even better and more cost-effective cadmium-free technologies.

Nanoco, a UK-based company that manufactures cadmium-free quantum dots and other nanomaterials, welcomed the Parliament’s decision. Its chief executive, Michael Edelman, said that the company “commend(s) parliamentarians on their resolve and understanding of how the market has changed since the Commission’s initial assessment”.

According to Nanoco, manufacturers of cadmium-free quantum dots and other nanomaterials have been anticipating the ban on the use of cadmium under the RoHS Directive since this law was recast in 2011. Manufacturers had been gradually withdrawing products containing cadmium from the EU market in order to meet the original deadline of 1 July 2014.

Inevitably, parties who had lobbied against the lifting of the exemption are less pleased with the European Parliament’s vote. The Chair emeritus of the OECD Working Party on Manufactured Nanomaterials, Jim Willis, said that a ban on cadmium risks decreasing the energy efficiency of televisions.

Willis also argues that the ban on cadmium will lead to the promotion and replacement of cadmium with a new series of other toxic substances. According to Willis, “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”.

Furthermore, Willis alleges that the risk of exposure to the toxic nature of cadmium, as it is used in cadmium based quantum dots, is negligible. Generally, in televisions, the cadmium based quantum dots are coated with a polymer and are sealed in glass, with the quantum dot components themselves further sealed within the displays. Moreover, only 0.2 micrograms per square millimetre of display area of cadmium is permitted, amounting to less than a tenth of a gram per television, which, in Willis’ opinion, is a “miniscule amount”.

The European Parliament’s rejection of the Commission proposal to extend the exemption does not amount to an automatic “ban” on this application of cadmium. Rather, it will lead to a new assessment of cadmium. As a result, as stated in a parliamentary statement: “There are therefore no market distortions, as the current exemption remains valid until revoked”. Rather, the cadmium-free quantum dot technology will now likely become the subject of a safety re-assessment, which will undoubtedly entail a lengthy lobbying battle.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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