Investigation of exposure to flame retardants among electronic waste recycling workers

Status: In Progress


This study will characterize the inhalation and skin exposure of electronic waste (e-waste) recycling workers to “old” flame retardant chemicals (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs) and two groups of “newer” replacement flame retardant chemicals, namely halogenated and phosphorus flame retardant chemicals (HFRs and PFRs, respectively). It is important to note that PBDEs are a type of HFR. This study aims to answer two research questions:

  1. What levels of exposure do e-waste recycling workers have to flame retardants (PBDEs and replacement flame retardants) through skin and airborne exposure?
  2. Can we measure flame retardant exposure in the workplace using novel lightweight passive samplers?


Managing e-waste is a growing challenge for communities, provinces and countries. According to Ontario Electronic Stewardship (OES), there are 649 companies providing services to collect, transport, process, refurbish, reuse, consolidate and repackage e-waste in the province. In 2013 over 75,000 tonnes of e-waste was collected and processed in Ontario; roughly a 500% increase over amounts processed in 2009.

Results from exposure studies in e-waste recycling workplaces in low and middle income countries indicate that workers have very high levels of exposure to many hazardous substances, including flame retardants, PCBs, dioxins, lead, arsenic, cadmium and chromium among others. In other workplace settings, these exposures have been associated with several occupational diseases including chronic respiratory disease, reproductive issues and cancer. Very little is known about flame retardant exposure levels in e-waste handling facilities in high income countries; no studies have been conducted in Canada. Recent industry growth coupled with the lack of information on exposure levels means that there is a need for exposure assessment in this sector in order to prevent future occupational disease.


This study will measure both halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) and phosphorus flame retardant (PFRs) in the air, on workers’ skin and in settled dust in an e-waste recycling facility. This study will also investigate two novel methods for assessing flame retardant exposure in the workplace. Results will describe the type of flame retardants the e-waste workers are exposed to, the levels at which they are exposed, and whether this exposure varies across workers. Results will also describe the size distribution of particulate matter in the workplace, and the fractionation of the flame retardants across the size distribution.


To the best of our knowledge this will be the first study to provide a detailed flame retardant exposure assessment for Canadian workers in an e-waste recycling facility. This information is critical for identifying areas for improved primary prevention, including the development of exposure reduction strategies.


In the first years of this project, the study team worked to develop and validate the sample methodology, and partnered with the e-waste recycling facility to pilot test sampling methods. Data collection for the study is slated to occur in the Fall of 2016.


This study is funded by a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Labour:
Arrandale VH, Diamond ML, Venier M, Melymuk LE, Jantunen LM. Investigation of Exposure to Flame Retardants among Electronic Waste Recycling Workers. 2015-2018.


Victoria H Arrandale (Occupational Cancer Research Centre, University of Toronto)
Miriam L Diamond (University of Toronto)
Marta Venier (Indiana University)
Lisa E Melymuk (RECETOX)
Liisa M Jantunen (Environment Canada)
Kate Jardine (Occupational Cancer Research Centre)
Sheila Kalenge (Occupational Cancer Research Centre)