Flame Retardant Products, who knew?

I thought this was an interesting article as I don’t know much of anything about flame retardant products. It will be a saga I’m sure with what they come up with to replace the decaBDE. The full article was posted on Healthy Child Healthy World.

On Thursday December 17, while the world was waiting to learn if talks in Copenhagen would produce a plan to keep the planet from heating up any further, the EPA made a flame retardant announcement of its own: Within three years – by the end of 2013 – the two U.S. producers and the largest U.S. importer of the flame retardant known as decaBDE (decabromodiphenyl ether) – used widely in plastics of electronics, motor vehicles, aircraft, in textiles and furniture – will end production, use, and sales of the chemical in the United States.


This may sound arcane but it’s significant in a number of ways, not least because
decaBDE is a persistent and bioaccumulative synthetic chemical – one of a class of flame retardants known as PBDEs – that most of us have been encountering daily for years. Contrary to initial expectations, deca- is not staying put in the finished products where it’s used. In numerous scientific studies it’s been shown to migrate out of finished consumer products and has been found in household dust, in vacuum cleaner and laundry dryer lint as well as in rivers, wildlife, food, and people, most disconcertingly in nursing mothers and children.

Steve Owens, EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, said in his official response to the announcement,

“Though DecaBDE has been used as a flame retardant for years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned about its impact on human health and the environment. Studies have shown that DecaBDE persists in the environment, potentially causes cancer, and may impact brain function. DecaBDE also can degrade into more toxic chemicals that are frequently found in the environment and are hazardous to wildlife.”

Deca- is one of several PBDE flame retardants that have been used widely in consumer products for years in ever increasing volumes, beginning largely in the 1970s. Other PBDEs have been taken out of use, either voluntarily or by regulation, as evidence of their adverse environmental and health impacts – as endocrine disruptors and possible carcinogens – has grown. Deca- was initially thought to be safer than other PBDEs, but evidence of its adverse effects has also grown, including its ability to break down into smaller more hazardous compounds that can adversely impact thyroid hormones, neurological and immune systems. In Europe, PBDEs, including deca-, are no longer allowed for use in electronics.

PBDEs themselves came onto the market after some of their predecessor flame retardants – among them PBBs (polybrominated biphenyls) and perhaps most notoriously a compound known as “Tris” that was used in children’s pajamas was linked to cancer in animal studies.

While agreeing to the phase-out, PBDE producers continue to maintain their product safety. “While hundreds of science-based and peer-reviewed studies have shown decaBDE to be safe in use and one of the most efficacious flame retardants in the world, Albemarle [one of the two U.S. deca- producers] is committed to delivering safe and effective products with increasingly smaller environmental footprints,” Brian Carter, global business director of Albemarle’s flame retardant group told Chemical and Engineering News.

Concern about PBDEs’ health effects has, in the absence of any federal regulation, prompted a number of U.S. states to ban their use – including that of deca-. How this phase-out will influence legislation remains to be seen but Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) has introduced a bill to ban deca- and ensure its replacement with safe alternatives.

PBDE producers say they are working on environmentally friendly alternatives. Exactly what they are and how they behave remains to be discovered – although at least one is yet another brominated compound. Flame retardants already widely in use as alternatives to PBDEs, among them chemicals known as HBCD and tetrabromobisphenol A, or their breakdown products have been identified as environmentally persistent and are turning up in water, soil, wildlife, people and food samples.

One of the big challenges will be getting behind the websites depicting ladybugs and grassy meadows to find out how “green” this next generation of flame retardants actually is. Right now all we have is the manufacturers’ word.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author most recently of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry. She writes from Portland, Oregon. This was originally published by The Huffington Post.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Amy on December 29, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    This is an interesting article. I wasn’t even aware that the flame retardant stuff was bad or under scrutiny until I went to buy some pj’s for Clayton. Normally baby pajamas call out that the material is flame retardant, but the pair I was looking at didn’t…so I asked, and the sales lady said that new studies show this stuff is actually bad for you. Wow. Anyway, thanks for posting this story–very helpful!

    Reply

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