How do we make sure electronic products are safe?

Electronic gadgets, TVs, and smartphones seem like extensions of ourselves. We need them to be reliable and efficient. But what if those devices we love could be harboring toxic chemicals or dangerous defects? Experts say the right information is the best defense for consumers. 

If you’re concerned about electrical failure, one major sign you look for is a valid mark from Underwriters Laboratory, also known as UL. Such a designation shows you the product has met stringent safety standards. It is a third-party certification, so the manufacturer can’t influence the process. Electronic products will carry the “UL Listed” or “UL Classified” designation. To make sure the mark is real, check that it is in capital letters, and has a control or issue number and a description of the product.

The chemicals in electronics can cause brain and kidney damage, disrupt hormones, and even lead to cancer. Brominated flame retardants such as PBDEs can inhibit development and affect liver enzymes and thyroid levels. They can also leach into household dust. 

According to the nonprofit organization Because Health, Apple is using less harmful versions “and in some cases, eliminated [them] altogether” in favor of materials like aluminum. The EU is now banning the sale of TVs and computer monitors made with the toxic retardants. One intention is to make these products more recyclable — thereby hopefully turning dead TVs and phones into raw materials for new items.

Frequent home cleaning may limit exposure. The website Ethical Consumer says Philips, Sony, and Samsung TVs are the best choices when it comes to toxic chemicals. Consumers can also check for an EPEAT logo from the Global Electronics Council.

Best Buy released its corporate policy for toxic substances in 2020. It either bans certain chemicals outright or establishes a parts-per-million limit. For example, the company allows a limit of 1,000 ppm for PBDEs. Companies must report certain chemicals in their products if they intend to sell them at the electronics retailer. Best Buy restricts several chemicals, such as benzene, and toluene, in its own products as well.

The United Kingdom group Electrical Safety First urges consumers to not take sellers’ word at face value — especially if they are buying outside regular retail establishments. People hawking unsafe or fake items may offer them at prices just below what is recommended. Or they may have qualifiers on authenticity. 

Of course, it’s best if companies have their products tested before they hit store shelves. Supply chain compliance firm QIMA says its laboratories can check for chemicals limited by the European Union’s Restriction on Hazardous Substances directive. Under that regulation, companies may not place on the EU market any product with more than a threshold amount of chemicals like cadmium, mercury, or certain phthalates. Any company importing goods into the EU must also follow these rules. QIMA ensures products meet all RoHS testing requirements

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