Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Environment creates new strategy in Oregon Deca ban

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.

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7 Responses to “Environment creates new strategy in Oregon Deca ban”

  1. Dan says:

    The link in your article to the tips to avoid PBDEs does not work:

  2. Lisa,

    Congrats on the victory – great post. I am interested to click through to the link but it’s not up. Could you shoot me an email when it is up? It is the link to “tips on how to avoid PBDEs.”

    Ken was great last night!


  3. Thank you for the post–it was a hard battle and slightly disconcerting to witness first hand what stunts some groups will use to save/make some money. One of the best moments was during the floor debate when a number of legislators, while voting in favor of the ban, hoped that we (Oregon and nationally) would soon see the light and find a comprehensive way to fixed the flawed chemical regulatory system. Music to our ears! Now the challenge is to hold them to that!

  4. Jen Coleman says:

    Hooray for Oregon’s lawmakers, who resisted industry arguments and took unbiased look at the science! It was shocking to see chemical industry interests masquerade as citizen advocates, suggesting that we have to choose between fire safety and exposure to toxic chemicals. Of course, safer alternatives are already out there, and we don’t have to compromise health or safety. I’m proud that Oregonians saw through this false choice.

  5. Tammy Friedman says:

    Thank God we took a step in the right direction, it’s encouraging to know that if enough people stand behind a cause good can still overcome evil. And, that’s exactly what the chemical industry has evolved into, an evil beast putting greed first before health, children’s futures, and safety. Hoorah for Oregon