The safety of some chemicals used by the electronics industry should be reviewed, members of the European Parliament's Environment Committee said on Wednesday.
However, the committee stopped short of ordering an outright ban on chemicals such as PVC, used as an insulator, and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), used in electronics products to reduce the risk of fire.
Committee members are concerned that PVC, BFRs and other substances used in consumer electronics can pose health or environmental risks during products' useful lives, or when they are recycled or disposed of.
"We know that substances such as halogenated flame retardants, PVC and phthalates can cause serious health and environmental problems during the treatment of electrical and electronic waste. This should be the first step in phasing them out," said Jill Evans, a member of the European parliament (MEP) representing the Greens/European Free Alliance group.
The MEPs are not alone: campaign groups such as Greenpeace International are calling for manufacturers to eliminate PVC and BFRs from their products. Apple, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Samsung, among others, have responded to Greenpeace's campaign by eliminating the chemicals from new mobile phone models.
"We welcome this step towards leveling the so called 'legal playing field', as it will ensure that leaders in the electronics sector that have taken voluntary action to remove these toxic chemicals are not left at a competitive disadvantage," said Iza Kruszewska, a Greener Electronics campaigner at Greenpeace.
Others were less impressed by the committee's decision.
"This is a missed opportunity. There are already products on the market free of the dangerous halogenated flame retardants and PVC, so MEPs could have simply rubber-stamped the phase-out of these chemicals," said Christian Schaible, Chemicals Policy Officer at the European Environmental Board (EEB), which describes itself as a federation of environmental citizens organisations.
Parliament's Environment Committee is revising the 2002 Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, which sought to eliminate or reduce the use of certain toxic chemicals in electronic devices. One effect of that legislation was to force the industry to switch to lead-free solder in the construction of circuits.
PC manufacturers such as Acer, Dell and HP have lobbied the committee to extend the restrictions, according to the EEB.
However, the committee has been subject to "heavy pressure from the chemical industry" to make no changes, according to Evans.
Worried that fresh restrictions might slow down deployment of new technologies such as solar panels, the committee has recommended that renewable energy technologies be excluded from the RoHS directive, with a review due in 2014, Evans said.
The committee's recommendations will be put to the vote in the European Parliament in July.