Sign up to receive email updates, action alerts, health tips, promotions to support our work and more from EWG. You can opt-out at any time. [Privacy]


May 12, 2004

PBDEs - Fire Retardants in Dust: Brominated Fire Retardants

Brominated Fire Retardants: Persistent Global Pollutants

As highly flammable synthetic materials have replaced less-combustible natural materials, chemical fire retardants have become common in consumer products. One of the most widely used belong to a class of chemicals known as brominated fire retardants.

Fire retardants are the single largest end use of bromine worldwide. [1] About 449 million pounds of brominated fire retardants were used worldwide in 2001, and the market is growing by four percent annually. [1, 2] The brominated fire retardants known as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are the most widely used in North America, which used about 149 million pounds of PBDEs in 2001, half the world total.

Global Use of Commercial PBDE Products in 2001

(in thousands of pounds)

PBDE Product
Americas Europe Asia Other Total Percent used
in the Americas
Deca 54,010 16,760 50,710 2,315 123,700 44%
Penta 15,650 331 331 221 16,530 95%
Octa 3,307 1,345 3,307 397 8,356 40%

Source: [1]

PBDEs are in thousands of everyday products, including electronics equipment, lighting, wiring, building materials, textiles, furniture and industrial paints. [3] These fire retardants often make up a considerable proportion of product weight: Plastic can be up to 15 percent PBDEs and polyurethane foam up to 30 percent PBDEs. [4, 5]

Two of the largest manufacturers of brominated fire retardants are Great Lakes Chemical Corp. of West Lafayette, Ind., and Albemarle Corp. of Richmond, Va. In 2002, Great Lakes reported total sales for all products of $1.4 billion, up 4 percent from the previous year. Albemarle reported sales of $980 million, up 7 percent. [6, 7] The main areas of bromine production in the world are southeastern Arkansas, where Great Lakes and Albemarle pump it from underground pools of brine, and Israel, where a company named Dead Sea Bromine extracts it from the briny inland sea. A chemical industry journal describes the global trade in brominated chemicals as "an oligopoly controlled by Albemarle, Great Lakes and the Dead Sea Bromine Group." [8]

Products Often Containing PBDEs

(Bold indicates major uses)

Materials used in PBDEs Examples of consumer products
Deca Octa Penta
Plastics x x x Computers, televisions, hair dryers, curling irons, copy machines, fax machines, printers, coffee makers, plastic automotive parts, lighting panels, PVC wire and cables, electrical connectors, fuses, housings, boxes and switches, lamp sockets, waste-water pipes, underground junction boxes, circuit boards, smoke detectors.
Polyurethane foam     x Home and office furniture (couches and chairs, carpet padding, mattresses and mattress pads) automobile, bus, plane and train seating, sound insulation panels, imitation wood, packaging materials.
Textiles x   x Back coatings and impregnation of home and office furniture upholstery, industrial drapes, automotive, aircraft and train seating.
Paints and lacquers x   x Marine and industry protective lacquers and paints.
Rubber x   x Conveyor belts, foamed pipes for insulation, rubber cables.

Sources: [3], [4]

PBDEs are similar in structure to PCBs, the family of highly persistent and bioaccumulative toxicants that were banned in the 1970s after the discovery of widespread pollution which persists to this day. Like PBDEs, they have been found in people, animals and the environment worldwide. And like PCBs, scientists have found that exposure to minute doses of PBDEs at critical points in development can cause deficits in motor skills, learning, memory and hearing, changes in behavior, and decreased sperm count. [9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14]

In 1999, Swedish researchers reported that PBDE levels in women's breast milk had increased 60-fold between 1972 and 1997. [15] Similar dramatic increases were documented in California harbor seals, ringed seals from the Arctic, gull eggs from the Great Lakes and human blood from Norway. [16, 17, 18, 19] PBDE pollution has been found essentially everywhere scientists have looked: in the tissues of whales, seals, birds and bird eggs, moose, reindeer, mussels, eels, and fish; in human breast milk, hair, fat and blood; in twenty different countries and remote areas such as the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Arctic Ocean. [21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31] In response to the evidence, this year the European Union will ban the PBDE mixtures known as Penta and Octa (named for the typical number of bromine atoms in the mixture's chemical constituents).

Levels of fire retardants rose dramatically in
Swedish breast milk from 1972 to 1997

graph showing increase in PBDE levels

Source: [15]

PBDE levels detected in U.S. studies are consistently much higher than levels anywhere else in the world. In September 2003, EWG tests found that the median level of PBDEs in the milk of 20 first-time American mothers was 30 times that found in recent European studies. [30] Similar levels have been found in several other U.S. studies of infant cord blood, women's blood, adipose tissue and breast milk. [31, 32, 33, 34] In 2003 evidence of the rapid buildup of PBDEs prompted California to follow Europe's lead and ban Penta and Octa beginning in 2008. Within months of the enactment of the California ban, the EPA reached agreement with U.S. PBDE makers to stop manufacturing Penta and Octa by 2005.

chemical fire retardants chart

Clearly Penta and Octa are on the way out worldwide. But the chemical industry is waging a fierce fight to retain the use of the third major PBDE compound, Deca, despite mounting concerns about its human health effects and its tendency to breakdown into other more toxic and bioaccumulative PBDEs. Deca is the most widely used of the PBDEs, making up 83 percent of the global market and 74 percent of the U.S. market. [1, 2] Most of the Deca produced worldwide is manufactured by Albemarle, Great Lakes Chemical and the Dead Sea Bromine Group. [35] U.S. chemical manufacturers and users alone report more than 1.4 million pounds of Deca emissions in 2001,— more than double the amount that was released in 1988, the first year records were kept. [36]

Deca is primarily used in the plastic housings of electronic equipment such as computers, televisions, and office machines, and also in plastic auto parts, lighting panels, electrical connectors and fuses. About 10 percent of the Deca produced is used in the textile industry, which applies the chemical to the upholstery of home and office furniture, car, plane and train seating, and industrial drapes. A small amount of Deca is also used for industrial paints and lacquers. Rather than chemically binding to the treated material like some other fire retardants, Deca is simply mixed in during manufacturing, making it more likely to leach out.

In California, Europe and most other places that have tried to enact PBDE regulations, chemical manufacturers lobbied heavily to retain the use of Deca, arguing that it does not bioaccumulate because its molecules are too large to be absorbed by organisms. [37] Recent research has proven otherwise. Despite analytical barriers that make its detection difficult, Deca has now been found in wildlife worldwide, including fish, seals, porpoises, dolphins, star fish, hermit crabs, mussels, shrimp, birds and bird eggs. [38, 39] In some cases the levels detected have been quite high: Dolphins in the North Sea and peregrine falcon eggs in the U.K., for example, had levels measuring 318 and 828 ppb (lipid), respectively. [38, 39]

Deca-BDE has been detected in people and numerous wildlife species

Species Location
Max deca-BDE level detected
(ppb lipid)
Peregrine falcon egg United Kingdom
Peregrine falcon egg Sweden
Dolphin North Sea
Human blood (occupational exposure) Sweden
Human blood (general population) United Kingdom
Harbor seal North Sea
Mysid shrimp Western Scheldt
Common tern eggs Maasvlakte
Bream Germany
Harbor porpoise North Sea
Star fish North Sea
Hermit crab North Sea
Common Kestrel United Kingdom
Grey heron United Kingdom
Chicken egg United States
Cod North Sea
Barn owl United Kingdom
Red kite egg United Kingdom
Eurasian sparrow hawk United Kingdom
Mussels Japan
Montagu's harrier egg United Kingdom
Great crested grebe United Kingdom

Source: [38, 39, 81]

It is now clear that Deca is also getting into our bodies. Scientists have detected it in human hair, fat, blood and breast milk. In our breast milk study EWG found Deca in 16 of 20 first-time U.S. mothers in concentrations as high as 1 ppb, while another study released at the same time found it in the breast milk of eight of 23 Texas women at a maximum of 8 ppb. [30, 34] Much higher concentrations have been found the blood of the general population of the U.K. and workers in Sweden (up to 241 and 278 ppb, respectively). [39, 38] These findings refute the chemical industry's claim that it is virtually impossible for Deca to enter women's bodies, and even more unlikely for her to pass it on to her child via her breast milk. [37]

New research also indicates that Deca is more toxic than previously thought, causing some of the same effects on newborn rats and mice as Penta and Octa. [40] Equally importantly, scientists have found that although Deca is highly persistent under some conditions, when exposed to sunlight it breaks down — that is, it loses bromine ions — to become the forms of PBDEs which are more toxic and more likely to accumulate and persist in people. [41, 42, 43, 44, 45] This finding is consistent with the fact that structurally similar chemicals like PCBs also break down in the environment.