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Europe takes lead in banning PBDEs

Already ahead in product ingredient labelling and precautionary evaluation of new chemicals, the European Union has taken the lead in dealing with the newest persistent organic pollutant — polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

A new EU regulation on two forms of PBDEs — known as penta- and octo-BDE, based on the number of bromines in the chemical structure — just came into effect Aug. 15, 2004 A third common form deca-BDE, is under risk evaluation and is targeted for action in 2008.

The EU is the first to put a ban into the chemicals that are being seen as “the new PCBs” because of their persistence in the environment and their tendency to bio-accumulate up the food chain. Maine and California will ban penta and octo-BDE in 2006, Hawaii in 2008 and Maine will extend its ban to deca-BDE in 2008.

PBDEs, which are used as fire retardants in dozens of products from polyurethane foam to plastic computer and monitor casings, created headlines in 2004 when a follow-up study on PCBs in farm salmon found that levels of PBDEs were also higher in farm salmon.

But PBDEs first showed up as a red alert on toxicology radar screens in 1998 when Swedish researchers found that PBDE levels in women’s breast milk had risen dramatically since 1972 and in fact were doubling every five years.

Even more alarmingly, follow-up studies on this continent showed that levels in North America were far higher than in Europe and Japan — and Canadian levels were the second highest in the world, just barely behind the highest U.S. levels.

The highest level recorded in a Canadian sample was 956 ng/g, just slightly less than the 1,000 ng/g recorded for a U.S. sample.

A study on PBDEs in U.S. mothers’ breast milk, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in November, 2003, also showed that the level of PBDE in Canadian breast milk samples rose exponentially from 1992 to 2002, from 3 nanograms/gram (or parts per billion) to 22 ng/g — a increase of more than seven times. Health Canada scientist John Jake Ryan was among the five authors of the study.

The study concluded: “This survey clearly indicates that high levels of PBDEs are found in U.S. women and can be transferred to the nursing infants…There are particular concerns especially about infant health because the fetus and the developing child are more sensitive than adults to the effects of chemical compounds, including PBDEs in breast milk and diet.”

Despite the high levels in Canadian samples and the legislative action taken in other countries, Health Canada has not proposed any of its own measures. A Health Canada advisory acknowledges that PBDEs are showing up in Canadians’ blood and breast milk but adds: “There have not been any studies conclusively linking PBDE levels in humans to any health conditions. Effects on behavioural development, as well as on the liver and thyroid, have been observed in studies on experimental animals exposed to PBDE levels much hjigh than the human population is exposed to in Canada.”

Nobody knows for sure the level at which PBDE concentrations trigger serious health effect, but in PCBs, which are structurally similar to PBDEs, that level is 1,250 ng/g, according to Tom Muir, a PBDE researcher with Environment Canada.

“PBDE is a poster child chemical for something that ought to be zeroed out,” he told the Globe and Mail in a June, 2004 story.

Testing done so far on PBDEs has shown them to be neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors that interfere with the thyroid gland. Experiments in mice, demonstrated the neurotoxic effects, showing permanent memory and behavioural problems that actually worsened with age.

Preliminary testing carried out by the National Toxicology Program several years ago showed that deca-BDE was carcinogenic to mice at high exposure levels.

Because PBDEs don’t bind to plastic and other materials that contain them, they easily leach out of the millions of pieces of furniture foam, computers, TVs and monitors that are landfilled every year. They enter groundwater and move into the aquatic and marine environment. They also show up in the dust that accumulates on computer monitors everywhere.


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