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Ban should include all PBDEs

Remember when plastic TVs and computer monitors first started showing up on desktops all over the continent? Maybe not — but when plastics were first used to enclose electronic components, they had a tendency to catch fire from the heat generated by the components.

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manufacturers increasingly needed to add fire retardant chemicals to the plastics to make them less flammable.

Enter the brominated fire retardants, a new class of flame retarding chemicals made using cheap, available bromine. Within only a few years, they were being added to polyurethane foam furniture, mattresses, clothing and virtually all the plastic enclosures for computers, televisions and other electronic goods. Still the most common and most widely used are polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

Over the last 20 years, the chemicals have arguably prevented many fires. But those benefits have now been far outweighed by the toxic legacy PBDEs are leaving.

The chemicals are usually introduced as a plastic additive, and because they don’t bind to the plastics, they can migrateinto the environment, either as dust from foams and computer housings, or as leachate from those materials after they’re dumped into landfills. Many homes now have high levels of PBDEs in hosuehold dust, as computer plastics and furniture foams break down over time.

Persistent toxins
PBDEs are persistent and bioaccumulative in the environment. They have been found in orcas in the Pacific Northwest, in polar bears in the Canadian and European Arctic and in the breast milk of women from Japan to the Pacific Northwest. The levels of PBDEs in the breast milk of Canadian women are among the highest in the world, second only to those in the U.S.

In most countries, the levels of PBDEs in women’s breast milk have been doubling every five years — with one promising exception. In Sweden, where PBDEs have been banned since the 1990s, those levels have begun to decline, clearly demonstrating the benefits of regulatory action.

A growing number of studies with animals have linked PBDEs to a variety of health effects, particularly endocrine disruption, often at levels comparable to those found in women’s breast milk. PBDEs may cause permanent memory and immune system impairment and they can interfere with thyroid function, which is key to many other functions in the body.  Because of their persistence in the environment, there is a high risk to wildlife, including marine mammals, just as there has been with PCBs, which have now been banned from manufacture.

According to Ake Bergman, a Stockholm University researcher who has studied them extensively, “we know more about PBDEs than we knew about PCBs at the time they were banned in the 1970s.”

Alternatives available
A variety of chemical alternatives that do not contain bromine or chlorine are available to replace PBDEs, along with alternative materials and manufacturing processes.

As it has done with other potentially toxic substances, the European Union has been the first to act to restrict PBDEs. In August, 2004, the EU banned the manufacture and use of two major commercial groups of PBDEs, known as penta-BDEs and octa-BDEs (the compounds vary, depending on the number of bromine atoms in the chemical chain).

A third group, known as deca-BDEs, which are still widely used in electronics applications, will be the target for action in 2008, although quarterly scientific reviews could move that date up.

The decaBDEs were not initially included in the ban because they were not thought to be as readily absorbed as the penta and octa formulations. But recent research has shown that decaBDEs are accumulating in the bodies of animals, especially birds. And decaBDEs can degrade into the more toxic forms of PBDEs in the environment.  “Deca can break down and convert to more dangerous forms, including Penta and Octa that scientists have found rapidly accumulating in our bodies,” the California Department of the Environment stated in its 2004 Body of Evidence report. “New evidence indicates that Deca decomposes in sunlight and ultraviolet light and within the bodies of animals.”

A March, 2005 report from the Scientific Commission on Health and the Environment (SCHER), an advisory body to the European Commission, also warned of the dangers of DecaBDEs. “Emissions of Decade to the environment may constitute serious problems in the future,” it stated. “Today there is further evidence for degradation of this substance to potentially harmful compounds and SCHER strongly recommends risk reduction measures.”

Several U.S. states, including Maine, California and Hawaii and Washington, have also introduced bans on PBDEs that will become effective this year. Maine will include decaBDEs in 2008.

What about Canada?

In 2004, Environment Canada carried out a screening assessment under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act that concluded:

“All PBDEs also have the potential to transform to other compounds of concern. Based on this evidence, it is concluded that PBDEs, including tetraBDEs, pentaBDEs, hexaBDEs, heptaBDEs, octaBDEs, nonaBDEs and decaBDEs, which are found in commercial penta-, octa-, and decabromodiphenyl ethers, are entering the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity and are considered to be "toxic," as defined under paragraph 64(a) of CEPA 1999.”

The assessment recommended that all PBDEs be added to the list of toxic substances, known as the Priority Substance List for where they would be subject to a risk management program. But as of November, 2005 they had still not been added to the list.

Even when they are put on the list, the risk management strategy could fall well short of an outright ban, unless there is strong pressure on the government.

Currently, many manufacturers have stopped using pentaBDEs for foam furniture and similar applications. There is little use of octaBDEs in Canada. But decaBDEs are still widely used, particularly in the electronics industry and continue to pose a threat to human health and the environment.

Scientists urge precaution

Many scientists warn that waiting for conclusive evidence is not precautionary and poses the risk of the same environmental disaster that finally forced the ban on PCBs.

Because there are currently no Canadian regulations restricting the use of PBDEs, some furniture products and many televisions and computer monitors sold in Canada may contain PBDEs. Fortunately, Canadian manufacturers of furniture and mattresses are not required to use fire retardant foam in their products and most upholstered furniture and mattresses made in Canada are free of fire retardant chemicals. However, many products manufactured outside the country contain PBDEs.

Canadian foam manufacturers had been using PBDEs in their products until about five years ago when Swedish furniture giant IKEA made the welcome decision to eliminate PBDEs from its products and instructed suppliers to provide PBDE-free materials. However,  manufacturers replaced PBDEs with chlorinated phosphate esters (TCEP), another potentially toxic substance currently facing restriction in the EU. Because upholstered foam products made for IKEA in Canada are also shipped to the U.S., where fire retardant treatment is required,  they’re all treated with TCEP. As a result, Canadian customers at IKEA get a fire retardant that isn’t necessary.

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