Brattleboro, VT (June 07, 2004)—
Brattleboro, VT - Citing unacceptable health and environmental risk, the trade publication Environmental Building News (EBN) has called for an immediate ban of one class of brominated flame retardants and a phaseout of all halogenated flame retardants unless their safety can be demonstrated. In its June issue, the widely respected publication examines chemicals that are used to reduce risk of fire in building products, furnishings, electronics, and consumer products. An editorial in the same issue calls for wide-ranging actions on flame retardants.
Of most immediate concern are PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, a class of halogenated flame retardants that have been widely used since the late 1970s. "We have recommended an immediate ban of all PBDEs," said executive editor Alex Wilson, who authored the June feature article, "Flame Retardants Under Fire." PBDEs were introduced after the closely related polybrominated biphenyl flame retardants (PBBs) were banned in the mid-1970s following a 1973 incident in Michigan in which FlameMaster FF-1 was accidentally mixed with animal feed. That accident led to widespread contamination and health problems for thousands of Michigan residents. Like the better-known and very similar polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), PBBs are highly bioaccumulative (that is, they are stored in fat tissues and build up in the food chain).
When U.S. production of PBBs ended in the 1970s, industry quickly switched to PBDEs and other brominated flame retardants. Today the world produces nearly 20 times as much brominated flame retardant as it did in the early 1970s when PBBs came under fire. Most brominated flame retardants today go into the hard plastic used in television and computer cases and other electronic equipment, but significant quantities are also used in polystyrene insulation, commercial drapery backings, polyester fabrics, wiring, and the soft polyurethane foam found in mattresses, upholstered furniture, and carpet padding. "Flexible polyurethane foam can be up to 30% PBDE by weight," according to Wilson. "As that foam deteriorates over time, the flame retardants escape, contaminating our homes, offices, and the environment," he said.
Health concerns about PBDEs emerged in 1999 when Swedish scientists reported that levels of these chemicals in human breast milk had increased 60-fold between 1972 and 1997. Subsequent studies found PBDE levels in American women to be up to ten times higher than in Sweden and doubling every five years. "Finding out how ubiquitous PBDEs have become in human breast milk has led to a flurry of research on health effects," according to Wilson. "As we address in our article, health impacts range from interference with brain development and hormone function to cancer." Wilson also notes that approximately 5% of the U.S. population already has extremely high levels of PBDEs in their bodies--close to the levels at which laboratory animals develop serious health effects.
Europe, California, and Maine have taken action to ban the two most potent forms of PBDEs, so-called "penta" and "octa" formulations (with bans to take effect between now and 2008), but not the most commonly used form, "deca," which has ten bromine atoms in the molecule. "We are calling for a ban of deca, because new evidence shows that this form breaks down into the more dangerous penta form," said Wilson.
Beyond immediate restrictions on PBDEs, EBN is calling for comprehensive testing of all flame retardants, particularly halogenated compounds (those containing chlorine and bromine). More than 150 flame retardants, including 75 brominated flame retardants, are currently on the market. "It is ludicrous that we can ban one class of flame retardants, PBBs, because of irrefutable evidence of health impacts," said Wilson, "yet not even require testing of compounds that are very similar chemically." Wilson's editorial calls for banning additional halogenated flame retardants that cannot be proven safe.
Wilson acknowledges that flame retardants play a vitally important role in protecting us and our buildings from fire. He does not want to see a substitution of flame retardants that results in buildings becoming more dangerous. "To maintain a high level of fire safety in buildings, we may have to change the way we build," says Wilson. In a checklist accompanying the flame retardants article, EBN suggests reduced use of inherently flammable materials, such as foam insulation, in buildings, greater reliance on separation of flammable materials, and universal installation of sprinkler systems in buildings.
While he is aware that certain industries will fight any new regulations on flame retardants, Wilson points out the tremendous opportunities for the development of inherently fireproof materials. "There are billions of dollars to be made in the development of new building materials made from minerals and ceramics," said Wilson. "The technology exists today, for example, to produce foamed-mineral beadboard insulation that insulates as well as expanded polystyrene yet contributes neither fuel nor smoke to a fire," according to Wilson.
Only once before in its 12-year history has Environmental Building News called for the elimination of a particular product. In 1997, EBN was one of the earliest voices calling for a ban of chromated copper arsenate (CCA), a wood preservative used in pressure-treated wood--in January 2004, a phaseout of CCA for most uses took effect.
The complete June 2004 article, "Flame Retardants Under Fire," and the editorial "Beyond a Ban of PBDEs" can be found online at www.BuildingGreen.com.
Press Release Tools
Environmental Building News
People & Blogs