Saturday, November 5, 2016

New Climate-Friendlier Coolant Has a Catch: It’s Flammable

Tubes used for testing at Honeywell’s lab in Buffalo. CreditBrendan Bannon for The New York Times 
LONDON — Rajiv Singh started thinking about how to do his part to fight global warming 15 years ago.
Dr. Singh, a scientist at Honeywell’s lab in Buffalo, began running computer models of tens of thousands of molecular combinations. He was seeking a better refrigerant, one of the most vexing chemicals for the environment.
Refrigerants cool homes, cars and buildings but also warm the planet at a far higher rate than carbon dioxide. Dr. Singh was searching for one stable enough to be useful but that degraded quickly so it did not linger to trap heat in the atmosphere.
“You have to hit the chemistry books,” he said in a recent interview.
As product names go, HFO-1234yf, the refrigerant he played a crucial role in developing, does not roll off the tongue. But it is one of the most important alternatives to hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which have long been used in air-conditioners and refrigerators and which contribute greatly to climate change. On Oct. 15, in Kigali, Rwanda, more than 170 countries reached an agreement as part of the Montreal Protocol to curb the use of HFCs.
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But Dr. Singh’s new coolant is also controversial, with critics questioning its safety and viewing it as the latest attempt by large chemical companies to play the regulatory system to their advantage. HFO-1234yf is already becoming standard in many new cars sold in the European Union and the United States by all the major automakers, in large part because its developers, Honeywell and Chemours, have automakers over a barrel. Their refrigerant is one of the few options that automakers have to comply with new regulations and the Kigali agreement.
It has its detractors. The new refrigerant is at least 10 times as costly as the one it replaces.
A number of rival manufacturers have filed suits to challenge the patent. Officials in India, which has a fast-growing car market, are deliberating over whether to grant patent protection.
And then there is the safety issue.
Daimler began raising red flags in 2012. A video the company made public was stark. It showed a Mercedes-Benz hatchback catching fire under the hood after 1234yf refrigerant leaked during a company simulation.
Daimler eventually relented and went along with the rest of the industry, installing 1234yf in many of its new cars. But the company has developed an alternative using carbon dioxide that is being introduced in its S-class cars and some E-class models, with an eye toward further expansion.
In a statement, Sandra Gödde, a spokeswoman for Daimler, said 1234yf had “different flammability properties” than the HFC coolant it was replacing, which is considered to be nonflammable. The company has developed “specific measures in order to guarantee our high safety standards,” she added, including “a specially developed protective system.”
Rajiv Singh helped develop HFO-1234yf, a coolant that is less harmful to the climate than hydrofluorocarbons. CreditBrendan Bannon for The New York Times 
Some engineers and environmentalists, however, say 1234yf is not a good option.
“None of the people in the car industry I know want to use it,” said Axel Friedrich, the former head of the transportation and noise division at the Umweltbundesamt, the German equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency. He added that he opposed having another “product in the front of the car which is flammable.”
Dr. Friedrich, an engineer and a chemist, is also a member of the scientific advisory council of the International Council on Clean Transportation, the group that commissioned the tests that exposed Volkswagen’s cheating on diesel emissions. He collaborated on tests of 1234yf with Deutsche Umwelthilfe, a German environmental group, which also raised fire concerns. While cars, obviously, contain other flammable materials, he was specifically worried that at high temperatures 1234yf emitted hydrogen fluoride, which is dangerous if inhaled or touched.
“I wouldn’t like to use it as a car owner, because it gives me a higher risk and higher cost,” Dr. Friedrich said. “It’s a really unfair solution by the car industry. This is not what government and society should have accepted.”
Honeywell and Chemours (which until last year was a unit of DuPont) have been adamant that the product is safe, and they are not alone. After the Daimler issue emerged, SAE International, an engineering consortium that includes all of the major automakers, said 1234yf was “highly unlikely to ignite,” though the issue led to a brief split with German automakers. The Joint Research Center of the European Union has also said there was “no evidence of a serious risk.” It is being used across the auto industry and has gained approval from regulators in the United States and Europe.
“Daimler was the only manufacturer that cited an issue,” said Ken Gayer, vice president and general manager of Honeywell Fluorine Products.
“All other car manufacturers at the time had incorporated 1234yf, which is mildly flammable, into their designs, with modest design changes, and proven to themselves conclusively that they could safely use the product,” he said.
Daimler’s concerns led to a reassessment. “The entire industry stepped back and said, ‘Could we possibly have missed something?’” Mr. Gayer said. “We reviewed all the work we did, and we also ran new tests to try to understand better what Daimler’s issue was.”
At the end of that process, automakers and regulators “proved to themselves conclusively once again that 1234yf was safe for use in cars, and then finally in 2015 Daimler announced publicly that they would use the product,” Mr. Gayer said.
Chemours said in a statement that the additional testing proved any “concerns to be unfounded.” It added, “Today, all major global automakers around the world are using HFO-1234yf.”
One thing is not in dispute. The new coolant is superior to the HFC it is replacing in its impact on global warming. Hydrofluorocarbons have roughly 1,400 times the impact of carbon dioxide, the baseline used to measure such chemicals. By contrast, studies of 1234yf have ranged from four times carbon dioxide to a recent assessment showing it has an even lower impact.
Axel Friedrich, a chemist, opposes the new coolant because it is flammable.CreditGordon Welters for The New York Times 
Because of that, perhaps no single chemical is better positioned to take advantage of the Kigali agreement. While Honeywell and Chemours, when it was part of DuPont, lobbied to weaken and stall HFC regulations in the past, this time they were poised to profit from a product that had fresh patent protection, and they largely embraced the agreement.
Though Honeywell would not give specific profit or revenue figures for 1234yf, sales of its HFC alternatives have helped the company raise annual revenue from its wider fluorine business by double-digit percentages in the last few years to more than $1 billion.
The companies, which sell products under different brand names, have “almost a monopoly,” said Stephen O. Andersen, a former E.P.A. official who has been a representative to the Montreal Protocol and works for the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, an advocacy group.
“The price of the product is very high, about $80 a kilogram, and so that adds up to about $50 to $75 per car, which is a lot of money compared to the HFC they were using,” which he said was about $4 to $6 a car. “So it’s a big shock, and it’s been a lot of controversy.”
David Doniger, director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “The safety concern is bogus.”
“The main concern is its high price,” Mr. Doniger said. “While a small part of the price of a car, this could be concerning when repairs are needed.” He said the price would decline after the patents expired, though that will take years.
The conundrums and controversies highlight the complexities of refrigerants and the trade-offs inherent in the fight to curb global warming. In the 1980s, the Montreal Protocol led to the ban on chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs, because of hazards to the ozone layer. They were replaced by HFCs, which are being curbed because of their effects on the climate.
Will 1234yf be an equally transitory fix? “Nothing lasts forever,” Dr. Singh, the Honeywell chemist, said. “At least a couple generations.”
Dorothee Saar, head of the transport and clean air team at Deutsche Umwelthilfe, the environmental group, said the new refrigerant presented considerable safety risks. She has her own solution. Ms. Saar, who lives in Berlin, has an old Volkswagen Golf without air-conditioning.
“I can always open a window,” she said.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Poisons in the Earth: the legacy of toxic iPhone e-waste

The world is full of electronics -- computers, laptops, cell phones, tablets, e-book readers, et cetera. In fact, according to some estimates, by 2017 the average person will have five devices that connect to the Internet, many of them manufactured by American electronics giants Apple and Microsoft.

What's more, as the "Internet of everything" becomes more and more prevalent in the coming decades, we'll all wind up with even more devices. Already, in sum, American households average about 24 electronic devices, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But what happens to them when we don't need them anymore? Where does your iPhone go when you toss it? How are iPhones -- and all of the other discarded electronics waste -- disposed of?

When we discard our computers, office electronic equipment, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones and television sets, it is called "e-waste." According to some estimates, the world already produces some 50 million tons of e-waste a year.

Much of this waste winds up in landfill dumps; in the U.S. alone, 70 percent of e-waste winds up in landfills. According to the EPA, about 30 million computers are tossed in the U.S. each year; in Europe, about 100 million cell phones are discarded. Only about one-quarter of e-waste is recycled.

What's more, the amount of e-waste is set to explode; as the world becomes more dependent on electronic, Internet-connected devices, millions more tons of this kind of waste will be generated each and every year. The UN's Environment Program estimates that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent from 2007 levels, and by 500 percent in India.

By that same year in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher.

But a great deal of e-waste winds up in incinerators, and that's a big problem for the environment and your health. That's because of the hazardous heavy metals -- many of them rare earth metals -- that are contained in every device.

"Electronic waste isn't just waste -- it contains some very toxic substances, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, beryllium and brominated flame retardants," says the group e-Stewards, on its website. "When the latter are burned at low temperatures, they create additional toxins, such as halogenated dioxins and furans -- some of the most toxic substances known to humankind. The toxic materials in electronics can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, endocrine disruption, and many other health problems if this waste stream is not properly managed. Many of the toxic constituents are elements, which means they never disappear, even though they may change form."

The poisoning of Asia

A number of additional toxic elements in electronic devices don't break down over time; rather, they accumulate in the food chain and biosphere. These toxins present a risk to communities as well as the global ecosystem, and also to those who recycle electronics around the world.

e-Stewards reports that an estimated 70-80 percent of e-waste that is given to recyclers is exported, and then mostly to countries with developing economies and inappropriate technology to handle it adequately and safely -- a way of externalizing the real costs of managing such products. Open-air burning is frequent in these countries, as are riverside acid baths which are used to extract a few of the rarest materials. The remaining toxin materials are dumped, most often.

Most of the e-waste goes to China, India and Pakistan, with China being the largest dump site of the three countries. Some African countries like Ghana also deal with e-waste through incineration.

In a report titled "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia," prepared by the Basal Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, in conjunction with Greenpeace China, Pakistan's SCOPE, and Toxics Link India, noted that e-waste was the most rapidly growing waste problem in the world -- and that Asia was paying the heaviest toll:

Rather than having to face the problem squarely, the United States and other rich economies that use most of the world's electronic products and generate most of the E-Waste, have made use of a convenient, and until now, hidden escape valve -- exporting the E-waste crisis to the developing countries of Asia.

Yet trade in E-waste is an export of real harm to the poor communities of Asia. The open burning, acid baths and toxic dumping pour pollution into the land, air and water and exposes the men, women and children of Asia's poorer peoples to poison. The health and economic costs of this trade are vast and, due to export, are not born by the western consumers nor the waste brokers who benefit from the trade.

The export of E-waste remains a dirty little secret of the high-tech revolution.

Children being affected too often

Meanwhile, in Ghana, Greenpeace International says that samples taken from just two toxic e-waste burn sites there "revealed severe contamination with hazardous chemicals."

"In the yards, unprotected workers, many of them children, dismantle computers and TVs with little more then stones in search of metals that can be sold. The remaining plastic, cables and casing is either burnt or simply dumped," the organization said in a report posted online. "Some of the samples contained toxic metals including lead in quantities as much as one hundred times above background levels."

Says Greenpeace scientist Dr. Kevin Bridgen, who has visited toxic e-waste burn sites in China, India and Ghana: "Many of the chemicals released are highly toxic, some may affect children's developing reproductive systems, while others can affect brain development and the nervous system. In Ghana, China and India, workers, many of them children, may be substantially exposed to these hazardous chemicals."

Learn more:

FDA Proposes Warning Labels on Liquid Nicotine Bottles

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to complete its April 2014 rules regulating e-cigarettes within the next two months.ENLARGE
The Food and Drug Administration is expected to complete its April 2014 rules regulating e-cigarettes within the next two months. PHOTO: TONY GENTILE/REUTERS
A proposal introduced on Tuesday by the Food and Drug Administration could result in warning labels and child-resistant packaging on bottles of liquid nicotine used in electronic cigarettes.
It is the first regulatory action on e-cigarettes the U.S. agency has announced since proposing regulations in April 2014 that would allow it to assume oversight of the $3.5 billion industry. The FDA is expected to complete those rules within the next two months. As part of the rules, it is also expected to restrict sales of battery-powered devices to anyone under 18 years old and require manufacturers to submit their products for federal approval.
The agency said on Tuesday that it would seek public comment for 60 days about whether bottles of liquid nicotine should require warning labels and childproof packaging in light of a recent increase in nicotine exposure and poisoning incidents. A January report by the California Department of Public Health said that reports of e-cigarette-related nicotine poisonings in young children in the state of California rose to 154 in 2014 from seven cases in 2012.
The FDA will weigh those comments before potentially proposing a rule and the agency would then take additional public comments before a rule is issued. By soliciting comments before it has oversight of the industry, the FDA is setting itself up to shorten the time it takes to complete a rule, which can take more than a year.
Federal and state lawmakers have urged the FDA this year to accelerate its push to regulate e-cigarettes. They have expressed alarm about nicotine poisonings and a report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April that e-cigarette use among teenagers tripled between 2013 and 2014.
The FDA will weigh comments on its proposal to put warning labels on liquid nicotine used in e-cigarettes before potentially proposing a rule.ENLARGE
The FDA will weigh comments on its proposal to put warning labels on liquid nicotine used in e-cigarettes before potentially proposing a rule. PHOTO: LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS
In the absence of federal regulations, many states and cities have pushed forward with their own rules. More than 40 states have banned e-cigarette sales to minors and more than 100 cities have banned e-cigarette use indoors.
The FDA said earlier this year that it needed time to complete rules because e-cigarettes involve “complicated rule making.” The agency gained regulatory authority over cigarettes through the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, but the act didn’t cover e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine products because they were just being introduced to the market.
The e-cigarette industry isn’t opposed to child-resistant packaging or warning labels, but e-cigarette advocates criticized the timing of the proposal because it came before the FDA has taken oversight of the industry. 

RE-cigarette advocates oppose the FDA treating e-cigarettes as tobacco products because they say e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco leaf and they believe e-cigarettes can be used to help smokers quit cigarettes.

“This seems premature,” said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, an industry funded advocacy group. “There are still numerous problems the FDA should be working out with their proposed regulations from last year before they contemplate new regulatory actions.”
Write to Tripp Mickle at

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