Forget missing laptops. The hot issue in the computer world lately is burning laptops. That’s right: while thousands of government laptops have gone astray, some of the rest have burst aflame. The most recent incident was about a week ago, when a Lenovo Thinkpad at Los Angeles International Airport spontaneously caught fire, leading several airlines to–at least temporarily–ban them from flights. The month before, a house burned down in Florida after a laptop sitting on a couch lit up. It appears that bad batteries are to blame, and have been recalled by several manufacturers.
Now here’s where the story gets odd. Two days after LAX fire, Greenpeace issued a report on laptops, urging manufacturers to “ditch” the fire retardants used in their products. Yes, that’s right. Two days after news of another laptop fire, Greenpeace urged less–not more–use of fire retardants.
To be fair, the Greenpeace report only scored use of a certain compound, a type of “brominated fire retardant,” which it says can be harmful in the waste stream. But there’s little evidence that the compound presents a significant risk. It can, however, save lives. Writes Dana Joel Gattuso, an adjunct analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute (and, for full disclosure, also my spouse):
:according to a growing body of research, the risks to human
health and the environment are far greater in the absence of brominated
flame retardants due to the increased chance of fire. A study by the Swedish
National Testing and Research Institute compared the outbreak of fires in
TV sets in Europe, where restrictions in the use of deca-bde has already
greatly limited its use on TVs produced and sold in Europe, to those
manufactured in the United States, where there were no limits to its use at
the time of the study. Using conservative estimates, the study found that
16 people die each year from TV fires in Europe, while in the U.S. there is
no record of fatalities from TV fires.
Did these retardants make a difference in the recent laptop fires? I don’t know the answer. But, on the whole, chemicals like these do have a safety impact, and incidents like these help remind us why they are there. It all makes you wonder what Greenpeace would have said if laptops weren’t catching fire.