Flame retardants may be phased
By Elizabeth Weise
The Environmental Protection Agency is negotiating with
a U.S. chemical manufacturer to phase out two toxic chemicals
used as flame retardants.
The chemicals have been found in potentially harmful levels
in human breast milk, and recent widely reported studies
found that U.S. mothers had levels 10 to 20 times higher
than mothers in Europe.
The flame retardants are two versions of polybrominated
diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs: The Penta version is used to
make foam and furniture-backing flame retardant; the Octa
version is used in the hard plastic casing of electronics
such as computers and televisions.
In mice and rats, studies have shown that PBDEs may cause
cognitive and behavioral changes during development and
may lead to higher cancer rates.
PBDEs appear to be present in humans worldwide. Breast
milk is tested because PBDEs readily accumulate in fat,
and breast milk is the least invasive way to test.
The only U.S. manufacturer of the chemicals is Great
Lakes Chemical Co. of West Lafayette, Ind. The firm is
discussing "a possible voluntary phase-out"
of both types with the EPA while the agency does a full
evaluation, company spokesman Trevor Francis says.
Europe will begin banning both forms next year, and California
will ban its use in 2008.
"That would be good news indeed if an agreement
could be reached voluntarily," says Arnold Schecter,
professor of environmental sciences at the University
of Texas. His research, published in August, found very
high levels in the breast milk of women in Texas.
"You don't want people to die in fires, but you
also don't want toxic chemicals in their bodies."
When Swedish companies voluntarily phased out PBDEs in
the late 1990s, levels in Swedish women began to drop
The Environmental Working Group, whose study last month
that found some of the highest levels ever reported, supports
a voluntary ban. "It's to Great Lakes' credit that
they acknowledge that they're going to have to comply
with this deadline in Europe beginning next year,"
says EWG's Bill Walker. "It's only fair that they
... honor that in the States as well."
Environmentalists are now turning their attention to
the most commonly used PBDE, the Deca type, which also
is used in plastics exposed to heat, such as TV casings,
PC monitors and blow dryers.
"The spin on Deca is that it is safe, but the study
we did shows that Deca is showing up in humans and appears
to have some of the same health effects," Walker
Europe begins banning Deca by 2006. China and South Korea
will phase it out of electronics by 2006.