May 12, 2004

PBDEs - Fire Retardants in Dust: PBDE Regulation

In 2003, California voted to ban Penta and Octa PBDEs by 2008, making California the first U.S state to take regulatory action. Several months later, Great Lakes Chemical, the sole American manufacturer of the two chemicals, reached a "voluntary" agreement with EPA to remove Penta and Octa from the U.S. market by 2005. In March 2004, U.S. Reps. Hilda Solis (D-CA), Lynne Woolsey (D-CA) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) introduced federal legislation to extend the voluntary phase-out and ban Penta and Octa in 2006. The bill takes another step forward by directing the EPA to identify and regulate other chemicals that break down to Penta and Octa. The bill also calls for labeling of products that contain any type of PBDE. Numerous other states have enacted or are considering studies, regulations or bans on one or more PBDEs, including Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York and Washington state.

Overview of current legislative efforts

State Bill Proposed action to regulate PBDEs
California AB302 Bans the use of Penta and Octa PBDEs by 2008.
Hawaii HB 2013 Bans the manufacture, use or sale of a product containing Penta or Octa PBDEs by 2006.
Massachusetts H2275/S1268 Act for a Healthy Massachusetts This bill will establish a pragmatic, gradual approach to reducing health impacts from ten identified toxic chemicals we are exposed to in everyday life where safer alternatives are available. Penta-PBDE is one of the chemicals listed.
Michigan HB4406 (passed) Regulates release of PBDEs (permit to release, release guidelines set by state agency).
HB4407 (passed) Sets sentencing guidelines for releasing PBDEs or filing a false report.
-- Petition to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to list PBDES as Ôcritical materialsÕ on the stateÕs list of worst chemicals. Would trigger a reporting requirement.
Maine LD1790 Would regulate the sale of products containing brominated chemicals, requires labeling, and permits fees.
New York S5712/A9207 Prohibits manufacture or sale of products with 0.1% Penta, Octa, or Deca by mass.
Washington -- Legislature authorized $325,000 for program to phase out persistent, toxic chemicals including PBDEs.

Because each type of fire retardant interacts differently with different materials, substituting one type of retardant for another is more complicated than it seems. But the electronics industry, in particular, has shown how quickly industry can react to the regulatory challenges. In the early 1990s, Deca and Octa were the most widely used fire retardants in the plastic housings of electronic equipment for the European market. But by 1999, PBDEs had been almost completed phased out of these plastic housings in Europe — the result of numerous individual companies choosing to move away from these toxic chemicals before their dangers had been fully mapped out. [3]

In the U.S., Intel, IBM, and Ericsson products already contain no PBDEs. Most Hewlett-Packard monitor housings are PBDE-free and the company has redesigned its computer casings so they don't require chemical fire retardants to meet safety standards. Sony, Motorola, Panasonic, NEC, Samsung and Toshiba have all taken significant steps towards phasing out chemical fire retardants from their products. [100, 101]

But there is there is little gain in replacing PBDEs with another chemical that is later found toxic. Two other brominated fire retardants with highly questionable environmental profiles, TBBPA (tetrabromobisphenol-A) and HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane), are being used as replacements for PBDEs in many products. [3] A more encouraging trend is that some companies have decided to phase out all chemicals in their products that contain chlorine or bromine.

Even better, other companies are now taking a look at the entire lifecycle of their products, reducing the use of toxins at each step in the process, or redesigning them to be more environmentally friendly. When Apple conducted a life-cycle analysis the company discovered that although using aluminum-based computer housing required more energy to produce, it also eliminated the need for chemical fire retardants, extended the product life, and allowed for easier, less toxic disposal. [101]

The bromine industry's lobbying group, the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum (BSEF), claims that "a ban of [Deca] would imply that any chemical found in [living things] or the environment should be banned no matter the level found. This would be the end of modern society as we know it." [102] BSEF's hyperbole simply doesn't stand up against the substantial progress the electronics industry has made in moving away from toxic fire retardants, and the growing evidence that Deca poses a serious environmental threat.

Beyond efforts to ban or replace a handful of brominated fire retardants, consumers will remain at risk so long as manufacturers are not required to test the effect of replacement chemicals on human health before they go on the market. There is very little data on the toxicity of the fire retardants that are currently being developed or are already in use as alternatives to PBDEs. This is largely because of well-documented shortcomings in federal toxics laws.

The chief regulatory statute for commercial chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), is infamous for its failure to lend meaningful authority to the Environmental Protection Agency. [103] The looming PBDE crisis and uncertainty surrounding replacement chemicals provide another disturbing illustration of the failures of a regulatory system that allows persistent, bioaccumulative toxins onto the marketplace before they have been adequately tested for safety. With these fire retardants, we are again reaping the high costs, in terms of health and productivity, of this industry-slanted system.

Under the current system, the EPA reviews new chemicals through a process that does not require health and safety test data and that discourages voluntary testing. Companies submit only basic toxicity data for fewer than half of all applications for new chemicals, and the government approves 80 percent of these with no use limits and no requests for tests. Eight of 10 new chemicals win approval in less than three weeks, at an average rate of seven a day. [103]

Perhaps worse than weak controls on new chemicals is the blind eye turned on the old ones. When TSCA was enacted in 1976, more than 63,000 chemicals already in use were "grandfathered" — granted blanket approval for continued use in consumer and industrial products with absolutely no requirement for further study. Most brominated fire retardants fell into this loophole and won implicit approval for widespread use in consumer products with no required health and safety testing. In 1998, the EPA and the nonprofit organization Environmental Defense reviewed all of the toxicity and environmental fate studies publicly available and found no information — not a single test — for 43 percent of the 2,600 chemicals produced in the highest volumes in the U.S. [103, 104]

The chemical industry has since agreed to do more tests to assess potential toxicity to children for a select number of the most widely use chemicals under the Voluntary Children's Chemical Exposure Program (VCCEP). The three most widely-used PBDE mixtures were included in the first group of 23 chemicals to be assessed as part of this program, but the usefulness of the VCCEP program is highly limited. Its purpose is to make "health effects, exposure, and risk information" of these chemicals available and provide "the means to understand the potential health risks to children." [105] But because the program is voluntary, chemical manufacturers are unlikely to hand over any information that might be damning for their chemical products, nor do they have much incentive to fill any significant scientific data gaps that are identified in the process.

There is no question that fire safety is important and that making products fire-resistant can save lives. Chemical fire retardants have become ubiquitous over the last few decades, but a wide variety of fire safety strategies exist. Using less-flammable materials or changing the product design so that it is inherently more fire resistant, are chemical-free solutions. Using less toxic chemicals as fire retardants is another option. We do not have to expose our children to toxins to protect them from fire.

The current system for biomonitoring in the U.S. is highly inadequate for identifying and tracking the multitude of chemicals Americans are accumulating and carrying in our bodies. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have conducted two biomonitoring studies that examined up to 116 environmental chemicals in the blood and urine of 2,500 people. [106] But this is just a tiny subset of the thousands of chemicals we are exposed to every day, and will always have a lag time of several years or more when investigating news of emerging contaminants of concern such as PBDEs or any other brominated fire retardants. Furthermore, the CDC study measured only four chemicals in children younger than six years old and did not look at any contaminants in breast milk, both of which are important for estimating chemical exposures to these most sensitive subpopulations.

In an age where chemical industries are releasing millions of tons of chemicals to the environment and chemical manufacturers gain permission to put more than 2,000 new chemicals into the biosphere each year, we need a better biomonitoring system. Such a system would serve as an early warning system for chemicals that are building up in our bodies, that can track trends in chemicals levels over time, and most importantly, trigger prompt regulatory action when necessary.