Industry Agrees to Phase Out DecaBDE Flame Retardant

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Following negotiations with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the two U.S. producers as well as the primary exporter to the U.S. of decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE) have agreed to a three-year phaseout of the chemical.

DecaBDE is a brominated flame retardant that, along with other polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), has long been targeted by environmental and health advocates (see “Flame Retardants Under Fire” in EBN June 2004).

Two chemicals in the PBDE family, the penta- and octa- forms, were eliminated earlier in the decade, but decaBDE has remained in widespread use, especially in hard (durable) plastics for consumer electronics and office equipment, upholstery textiles, drapery backings, and plastic pallets. Annual North American consumption was about 50 million pounds (23 million kg) in 2001, according to industry sources, though usage has dropped as much as 50% since then.

“Though decaBDE has been used as a flame retardant for years,” said Steve Owens, the EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned about its impact on human health and the environment.” There is further concern that decaBDE can degrade into the more hazardous forms pentaBDE and octaBDE.

The phaseout was announced on December 17, 2009, by EPA, along with the Louisiana company Albemarle, the Connecticut company Chemtura (previously Great Lakes Chemical Company), and the Israeli company ICL Industrial Products and its subsidiary Dead Sea Bromine Company. According to Dave Clary, vice president and chief sustainability officer for Albemarle, the manufacturers came to EPA proposing the voluntary phaseout. “It was an industry initiative,” he said. While Albemarle and the other manufacturers continue to argue that decaBDE (also called "decabrom") is safe, “we decided to spend our efforts in more positive ways developing new products, rather than spend them defending decabrom,” Clary told EBN.

Both Albemarle and ICL will phase out decaBDE sales for most electrical and electronic equipment by December 31, 2010, and for all uses (except some transportation and military applications) by the end of 2012, with the latter uses being eliminated by the end of 2013. Chemtura (which is currently in Chapter 11 reorganization) has pledged to eliminate all uses except certain transportation and military applications by the end of 2012, but does not refer to a 2010 date. All three companies retained the right to sell remaining inventory for six months after the December 2012 phaseout date, while promising not to stockpile the chemical prior to the phaseout date.

“This agreement is great news for our health,” said Arlene Blum, Ph.D., a visiting scholar in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. She cautioned, though, that the agreement does not ensure that flame retardant producers will move to safer products. One of the substitutes being considered is decabrominated diphenylethane (DBDPE), but according to Blum, DBDPE "is similar in structure and may be even more persistent and bioaccumulative.”

When problems have arisen in the past with brominated flame retardants, such as with polybrominated biphenyl ethers in the 1970s, the industry has switched to slightly different chemical formulations. Environmental and health advocates say it’s time to change that approach. “The chemical producers should stop moving from one toxic flame retardant to the next and develop new green products that are not based on bromine or chlorine,” argues Blum.

The same day the voluntary industry phaseout of decaBDE was announced, U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine introduced federal legislation to ban products containing the chemical. The Deca-bromine Elimination and Control Act (H.R. 4394) would phase out the chemical by 2013. “I am encouraged by the eleventh-hour agreement,” said Pingree in a press release (referring to the decaBDE phaseout), “and if it is followed it will achieve my primary goal with this legislation—getting deca out of the environment.” Pingree has vowed to push ahead with her legislation, however. “The chemical industry hasn’t always lived up to voluntary agreements,” she said. “This bill will make sure that they do.”

Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree (Rep. Pingree’s daughter) sponsored successful legislation in 2006 to ban decaBDE in the state of Maine, making that state the first to ban the chemical. Washington state also bans the use of decaBDE, and several other states have been moving toward such restrictions.

In a move toward decaBDE alternatives, Albemarle Corporation announced in early December 2009 that a new, more environmentally friendly flame retardant, GreenArmor, will be available in the second half of 2010 for a wide range of applications. This will be the first chemical to be rolled out through the company’s Earthwise brand. According to Clary, GreenArmor is a brominated flame retardant, but it is a polymeric compound based on a polystyrene that the company makes. “Because it’s a polymer it can’t be absorbed by living organisms,” Clary told EBN. “It’s just too big.” The new flame retardant’s properties are also retained more effectively when a product it is used in is recycled than is the common non-brominated flame retardant resorcinol diphenyl phosphate (RDP), according to Albemarle.

EBN has not verified the claim that the brominated chemical in GreenArmor is indeed safe or that it won’t degrade into smaller compounds that might be hazardous. We are disappointed that Albemarle’s replacement flame retardant is not halogen-free.

–Alex Wilson

For more information:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Office of Pollution Prevention and

Albemarle Corporation

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

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December 30, 2009