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Environmental connections to public health >>

Extinguishing Deca: A toxic flame retardant may flicker out

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

By Lisa Frack

"This is the beginning of the end for brominated flame retardants."

So said Richard Wiles, EWG senior VP for policy, upon learning last week that the major manufacturers of decaBDE have agreed to stop making it.

Who agreed to what, with whom and when? Late on December 17th, three large chemical companies and officials of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a deal to voluntarily phase out the toxic flame retardant Decabromodiphenyl ether (Deca), which is heavily used in consumer electronics, furniture, textiles and plastic shipping pallets.

The voluntary agreement with bromine industry giants Chemtura, Albemarle and ICL Industrial Products would end production, importation and use of Deca in all consumer products by December 2012. A full ban would take effect one year later.

A voluntary agreement isn't enough The joint announcement came just two days after legislation to force a phase-out of Deca was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine). The Decabromine Elimination and Control Act of 200 (H.R. 4394) would ban Deca in all products, including those designed for children, by the end of 2013. In a statement issued on December 17th, Rep. Pingree said,

I am encouraged by this [industry-EPA] eleventh hour agreement, and if it is followed it will achieve my primary goal with this legislation--getting Deca out of our environment. The chemical industry hasn't always lived up to voluntary agreements. This bill will make sure they do.

EWG Senior Scientist Sonya Lunder had a similar take on the need for Congressional action, despite the agreement:

Deca is a potent neurotoxin and suspected carcinogen that puts children at risk. It needs to be banned. We applaud the Deca phase-out deal. It's an important step forward, but as a voluntary agreement, it does little to ensure that the substitutes for Deca are safe.

Rep. Pingree's bill will give this phase-out the force of law and it will ensure that substitutes for Deca are safe. Until congress takes action to reform the federal toxic chemical law, it will take actions like this against individual chemicals to protect public health.

Why is deca a health concern? EWG tests in show that Deca accumulates in people and their homes, and that children have the greatest exposures to the chemical. This is especially concerning because single-day exposures to Deca cause permanent changes learning, memory and behavior in newborn mice. In our 2008 report on PBDEs in toddlers and their mothers, we explain the risks associated with Deca exposure:

Like other PBDEs, Deca upsets the developing brain and reproductive system. But recent studies indicate that it also impacts the reproductive system, possibly at even lower exposure levels.

In addition to its direct toxicity there are serious concerns that Deca breaks down in the environment to form PBDEs with fewer bromines, which are more persistent and bioaccumulative in people.

In the meantime, we recommend that you follow EWG's Healthy Home Tip 3 on how to avoid fire retardants to reduce your family's exposure to PBDEs.

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