PIP (3:1) – A cautionary tale

Tuesday 6 July 2021

Are you aware of PIP (3:1)? Not many people were until the start of this year when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned its use and almost stopped the US electronics market, worth $300bn, overnight. It acts as a cautionary tale for regulators and manufacturers as well-meaning decisions can have dramatic consequences if there is no dialogue between parties. 

PIP (3:1) is a chemical used as a flame retardant and plasticizer in a wide variety of plastic and rubber components, wiring, coatings, greases etc. To date it has not been recognised as a substance of concern and does not appear on the ECHA lists, although it is under consideration. However, in a 2014 update by the EPA PIP (3:1), and four other chemicals, were identified as persistent, bio accumulative and toxic substances (PBT) which are a class of compounds that have high resistance to degradation, high mobility in the environment and high toxicity.

In 2019 EPA proposed a rule to address PIP (3:1) and the four other PBTs as part of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Under this act the EPA is required to issue a final rule no later than 18 months after it is proposed so in January 2021 they moved and set an effective date of 6th March 2021. The key point was that it not only dramatically limited the use of these chemicals to a very small number of applications it also prohibited sales of products containing these five chemicals with potentially catastrophic effects.

The EPA was under the impression that “there is little evidence to suggest that PIP (3:1) is present in commercial and industrial articles” and even manufacturers were unaware of the scale of usage in products. It is only when the supply chain was investigated by manufacturers that the scale of the issue became apparent. Manufacturers and trade associations lobbied hard and subsequently on the 8th March; the EPA issued an update on the implementation of these new restrictions. This update included a temporary 180-day "No Action Assurance" indicating that the EPA will use discretion on enforcement issues related to the prohibitions on processing and distribution of PIP (3:1). However, record-keeping and downstream notification requirements related to PIP (3:1) in the final rule are still in effect as of the originally established date.   

Clearly the intentions were good as PBT’s must be removed from the environment to protect long term health of people and the planet. However, it is vital that regulators and manufacturers work together to understand exactly where chemicals are used and the implications of any legislation restricting their use. Most manufacturers want to play their part in protecting the environment and their customers but cannot change products overnight. Removal or substitution of chemicals takes time to fully understand where they are used, and how they can be changed without dramatic effects on the market, significant additional costs, or unexpected consequences.

The increasingly divergent list of restricted or banned chemicals between Europe and the US is a challenge. As manufacturers, we need to keep a careful eye on the two markets and select materials that satisfy both. The EPA is looking to add a further ten chemicals to the TSCA before the end of the year or early in 2022.

Perhaps this is a wakeup call for all.  

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