On January 6, 2021, the day the U.S. Capitol was stormed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would introduce the Substance Control Act (TSCA) on March 8, banning five persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) substances.
One of those substances, phenol isopropylated phosphate (3:1), or PIP 3:1, is of particular concern to the electronics industry. PIP 3:1 is widely used as a flame retardant and plasticizer. It is introduced at many stages in global supply chains to manufacture cables, wiring, semiconductors and other electronic components that all make their way into cell phones, laptops, vehicles, planes, and manufacturing equipment.
“The EPA announcement caught the industry completely off guard,” said Don Elario, vice president, industry practices, Electronic Components Industry Association (ECIA).
Industry trade associations have argued that eliminating PIP 3:1 across complex international supply chains in 60 days was impossible. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it can take that long to ship goods from Asia to the U.S.
The pressure forced the EPA to reconsider its mandate. On March 8, it announced a 60-day comment period and issued a 180-day No Action Assurance (NAA) on the prohibitions of components and goods containing PIP (3:1). In addition, the EPA agreed to use the industry feedback to determine a path forward, including extending compliance dates for certain regulated products.
On September 17, the EPA announced an extension of regulatory compliance of PIP (3:1) in the TSCA until March 8, 2022. Then, on October 21, it announced it would extend compliance to October 31, 2024.
“It’s good news,” said Michael Kirschner, president of Design Chain Associates and an expert on environmental, health and safety requirements in the electronics industry.
ECIA’s Elario concurs. “We appreciate the EPA’s extension. It will certainly help with the industry’s transition,” he said. “We want to thank the National Association of Manufacturers for its strong leadership in working with the EPA on this very important issue.”
Many electronics companies will be able to comply within three years. However, it may be insufficient for some sectors such as aerospace that may have trouble complying given the long development process.
“The EPA expects companies that need more time, such as those manufacturing medical or aerospace products that go through lengthy requalification or recertification, to provide detailed estimates and rationale to justify their request,” said Kirschner.
So now the hard work begins of finding replacements for PIP (3:1). Unfortunately, there is no single drop-in replacement for the chemical. Potential new replacements will need to be researched and tested.
“It is up to each manufacturer to figure out where and why PIP (3:1) is being used, then work on figuring out what the alternative is,” said Kirschner. “It could be another chemical or group of chemicals, a product redesign or just a decision to stop selling in the US.”
Potential replacements will need to be researched, tested and pass muster by the EPA. In addition, OEMs and tier-one suppliers need to identify PIP (3:1) use throughout their extended supply chains. This could prove difficult where communication between the links in the chain is already limited.
The EPA’s new rule also describes the specific kinds of information the agency will require to support requests for additional extensions to the compliance dates. It will expect industry to provide documentation on the following:
- Specific uses of PIP (3:1) in articles throughout their supply chains
- Concrete steps taken to identify, test and qualify substitutes for those uses
- Specific certifications that would require updating
For each of these uses, the EPA expects commenters to estimate the time required to remove the substance. EPA also expects commenters to document their specific needs for replacement parts, including the documented service life of the equipment and identifying any applicable regulatory requirements for the assurance of replacement parts.
Without this more specific information, it is unlikely the EPA will extend the compliance dates again.