It feels good to celebrate a victory now and again, doesn’t it? Especially when you’re in the business of reforming chemical policy in a country with an ineffective toxics law and a well-funded chemical lobby that routinely flies lobbyists from state capitol to state capitol to save its products. So go ahead: give a big round of applause to Oregon for passing a DecaBDE ban last month, the fourth – and strongest – in the nation.
This ban is important because it’s not limited to consumer products or strictly based on human health concerns. Oregonians and their legislators were moved by broader environmental issues, particularly the protection of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. Because Deca persists in the environment and accumulates in fish and other animals, it threatens their health and the entire ecosystem. This pernicious toxicity produced a sweeping statewide ban that protects all living things, and may pave the way for similar strategies in other states, many of which are considering bans.
If you’re thinking that PBDEs were already banned, you’re right – sort of. There are three basic types of Polybrominated diethyl ethers (PBDEs), two of which – Penta and Octa – haven’t been manufactured in the U.S. since 2005 (though through a loophole they can still be imported on products). The third, Deca, is now being banned at the state level in the face of federal inaction.
Why the delay on Deca? This PBDE has stayed on the market longer because it has been harder to detect in people’s bodies and the environment until recently and, because of its different chemistry (it’s got more bromines), was long considered more stable – and therefore less hazardous – than Penta and Octa. However, analytical advances in the late 1990s made it easier to detect Deca in the environment, and recent studies have shown that sure enough, Deca breaks down (or ‘debrominates’) when exposed to sunlight or metabolized by fish, rendering it just as persistent and bio-accumulative as the lesser-brominated and more toxic Penta and Octa.
So now a strong case can – and should – be made to ban it.
Which is exactly what Oregon did. An effective coalition of local wildlife, environment, firefighting, and human health advocacy groups worked successfully with key legislators to pass a bill in June and see the Governor sign it. They succeeded despite a well-funded industry campaign to defeat them – complete with slick flyers, robo calls, and the pro-PBDE scam group Citizens for Fire Safety. One state senator called the opposition campaign “total bullshit.” We couldn’t agree more.
The Oregon law adds Deca to a list of the highest priority toxic pollutants that may be found in the state’s rivers and streams. It comes on the heels of an EPA State of the River Report for Toxics that shows increasing levels of PBDEs in the Columbia River Basin and a similar 2007 ban in WA state, just across the river.
But don’t we need fire retardants? Fire retardants clearly have very real upsides when it comes to electronics (like preventing my laptop and your TV from bursting into flames while in use), but when there are safer alternatives available (in this case a chemical alternative, resorcinol bisdiphenyl phosphate), there’s simply no reason to use a toxic, persistent bioaccumulative chemical (unless you ask its manufacturers, that is). Truth is, a good many electronics manufacturers – the most common use for Deca – have already found alternatives.
Success in Oregon is good, but not good enough. Until Deca is banned in all consumer products in all 50 states, Penta is banned from imports, and fire safety regulations are revised to promote non-chemical solutions, American families – and especially their children – will continue to be needlessly exposed to these harmful compounds.
What, then, are we all waiting for? Nothing less than a win in Congress like the one in Oregon where industry shenanigans don’t prevail.
Wondering how to reduce your exposure until public policy saves you?
Check out our tips on how to avoid PBDEs.