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Canada bans flame retardant. The U.S? Not so much.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Special to Enviroblog by EWG senior analyst, Sonya Lunder.

EWG staffers were pretty thrilled by the recent Canadian government decision to ban the use of Deca, a type of flame retardant, in electronics. Once again, we are left applauding progress to the north, not at home.

What is deca, anyway? Deca is a fire retardant, a type of poly-brominated diethyl ether (PBDE), that is added to plastics used in computers, television screens and other electronic items to prevent them from catching fire when they're hot. Some other types of PBDEs have been banned (penta and octa), but Deca has escaped scrutiny largely because its presence can be difficult to measure.

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 (EPA 2008d). But recent studies indicate that it also impacts the reproductive system, possibly at even lower exposure levels (Van der Ven 2008). 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.

Why do we continue to take these risks with our kids' health?

So what's going on in the U.S.? Two states--Maine and Washington--have recently banned Deca, and 10 others have attempted similar action. The EPA and U.S. Congress have done nothing to restrict Deca use. You'll find a thorough overview of which states and countries have successfully or unsuccessfully taken action in our 2008 report on PBDEs in toddlers and their mothers.

In 2004, Europe passed a directive to ban Deca in electronics by 2006, which caused major manufacturers to scramble to find alternative ways to prevent fire. And they have successfully done so.

Electronics manufacturers shifting away from Deca In the meantime, electronics makers have largely shifted away from using Deca due to restrictions in Europe and actions on the part of some U.S. states. Our 2008 guide to reducing your PBDE exposure lists all the manufacturers who have made the switch. It is clearly a bit embarrassing that EPA can't get it together to ban a toxic, replaceable chemical that everyone else agrees isn't worth the risk.

New findings make strong case for ban Several recent findings have increased concern for the toxicity of Deca. For example, Swedish researchers recently published a study confirming the toxicity of single-day exposures to newborn mice. Also, small studies link other PBDEs in adults or in their homes with altered thyroid hormone levels, indicating that the toxic risks of this chemical might not be felt exclusively by children. A significant body of evidence shows that Deca is broken down into those same PBDEs. In fact, a study just last month found that human liver cells break down Deca into the same toxic compounds that are linked to altered thyroid levels.

Now if only we weren't always looking north and across the pond to decide what's safe or not. Because if the U.S. government says it's safe, nobody's listening.

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