Toxic Flame Retardants

Appeared in

  • Southern Sierran as Firefighters Back Ban on Flame RetardantsJuly 2008, page 2
  • Orange Coast Voice as Toxic Flame Retardants: Ubiquitious but toxic BFRs are everywhere, even the Artic, April 2008, page 11

Firefighters Back Banning Controversial Flame Retardant

Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

BFRs are so ubiquitous that they are found in remote areas of the Artic and throughout the food chain, from zooplankton to dolphins and polar bears.

BFRs are so ubiquitous that they are found in remote areas of the Artic and throughout the food chain, from zooplankton to dolphins and polar bears.

Your TV, mattress, couch and computer could be sources of man-made toxic chemicals building up in human tissues, including breast milk. Sounds crazy, but it’s not.

Many consumer products are imbued with a class of flame retardants considered by many to be bad news since they accumulate in fatty tissues, resist breakdown in the environment, and disrupt normal development in lab animals. They are called polybrominated diphenyl ethers or just brominated flame retardants (BFRs).

Introduced in the 1970’s, BFRs have become commonplace in upholstery foam, textiles and electronics because synthetic materials, like petroleum-based plastics, are generally more flammable. BFRs impede the spread of fire bycreating a layer of bromine gas around a heated product, keeping oxygen at bay. They comprise up to 30% of an item’s weight and migrate out over time into air, dust, and soil.

As example, dust samples from atop computers in home, school and business settings universally tested positive for BFRs in a 2004 study conducted by the Computer Take-Back Campaign. BFRs are so ubiquitous that they are found in remote areas of the Artic and throughout the food chain, from zooplankton to dolphins and polar bears.

Toxicity of BFRs

In lab animals, early exposure to BFRs derails normal brain development, is toxic to the liver and disrupts sex and thyroid hormones. Experiments from Uppsala University in Sweden, for example, demonstrated permanent impairments of learning and memory in animals given a single dose soon after birth. Whether humans might be similarly affected is unknown since intentional exposure of infants to potentially dangerous substances is unethical. However, the revelation that BFRs had increased 60-fold in the breast milk of Swedish women between 1972 and 1997 ignited a global shake up, starting with the 2004 ban in the European Union of the two formulations regarded as most toxic: so-called penta & octa.

Levels of BFRs in North American women are the highest anywhere and continue to double every 5 yrs. Although the U.S. maker of penta & octa voluntarily halted production in 2004 (the federal government has yet to ban any BFRs), the supposedly less toxic deca formulation still dominates the market at home and abroad: annual worldwide production is 60,000 metric tons with 40% of consumption in North America.

Yet, controversy looms as to just how safe deca is. It is listed as a “possible carcinogen” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) based on liver tumors produced in lab animals. The chemical industry insists that deca is minimally toxic so that current exposure levels are acceptable. But many scientists and environmental groups argue that no level of exposure is safe because humans are exposed daily and buildup in fatty tissues continues. Furthermore, there is evidence that deca is broken down by sunlight, bacteria or even within wildlife into more toxic forms, including penta & octa, so it might prove equally dangerous in the long run.

Concern about BFRs is fomented also by their structural similarity to PBCs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a family of now-banned substances linked to a host of developmental problems.

California considers deca bans

While 10 states, including California, have enacted bans on penta & octa, only Maine and Washington have successfully legislated deca prohibitions. A California bill specifically targeting deca failed passage in 2007, and another proposing to eliminate all BFRs from furniture and bedding floundered earlier this year (AB706, Leno). AB706 would have forced an industry move toward green chemistry, i.e. inherently less flammable materials as well as flame retardants proven safe beforehand.

Ban proponents contend that eliminating deca will not turn your household into kindling, as some might suggest. Other states, for example, lack California’s comprehensive standards of furniture flame retardance yet have enjoyed similar drops in fire death rates in recent decades, according to a 2006 report from the National Fire Protection Association. Rather, fire death rates varied with factors like smoking and poverty.

In fact, firefighting communities, including the International Association of Firefighters, have come out in favor of state prohibitions on deca, in part because of the risks to themselves. When BFRs combust, they produce dense fumes and black smoke that reduce visibility, as well as corrosive hydrogen bromide gas and brominated forms of potent carcinogens (dioxins and furans).

Organizations representing California’s frontline firefighters — California State Firefighters’ Association and California Professional Fire Fighters — formally supported AB706, as did the Firefighters Burn Institute and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. That firefighters are at greater risk for cancers has helped rally their support for eliminating deca, says Carroll Wills, spokesperson for California Professional Fire Fighters.

AB706 was named actually after a firefighter, Crystal Golden-Jefferson, who died from a workplace-related cancer of the lymphatic system. Still, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection provisionally opposed AB706 out of concern over the availability of effective alternatives to BFRs.

Makers of BFRs, however, remain the most vocal opponents to restricting deca. In fact, furniture maker IKEA and several electronics manufacturers (e.g. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sony. Panasonic) have already moved away from deca by embracing alternatives considered safer (e.g. phosphates) plus innovative designs and materials that eliminate the need for fire retardants.

Whatever the ultimate fate of AB706, the long term safety of deca remains unresolved. The history of BFRs is a case in point of the United States’ distorted approach to regulating chemicals wherein substances are allowed into commerce before proven safe.

Our homes should be havens of respite from job stress and the like, not a source of worry about what might be silently emanating from home furnishing to poison dust and breast milk. A sustainable, precautionary approach to fire protection is needed at state and federal levels, lest we expose children and firefighters alike to risky chemicals that pose a greater hazard than the fires they are intended to prevent.

Keywords and tags: brominated flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ether, PBDE, deca, octa, penta, breast milk, cancer, AB706, fire fighter, BFR, BFRs, IKEA, California State Firefighters’ Association, California Professional Fire Fighters, Firefighters Burn Institute, Firefighter Cancer Support Network, environment, green business, health, pollution, science, sustainability, green chemistry

© Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D. and Boogie Green, 2005-2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D. and Boogie Green with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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