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Do flame retardants prevent fires while harming our health?

Tuesday 23 February 2010

When we think of flame retardants, generally fire safety comes to mind. However in the case of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, widely used flame retardants in the United States, the safety issue may have more to do with humans and animals being exposed to the toxic chemicals contained in the flame retardants themselves. PBDEs have been used in things like mattresses, couches, televisions, computers and even toasters.

There are three commercial forms of PBDEs, two of which have already been banned in Michigan. The last remaining form is deca-BDE. While it’s been used successfully to prevent or reduce the spread of fires, it’s also on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of “potentially carcinogenic chemicals,” due to a study in which lab rats that ingested deca-BDE developed liver tumors. Deca-BDE has also been shown to disrupt thyroid function, and have reproductive, developmental and neurological consequences.

Even worse, deca is bio-accumulative, meaning that it doesn’t break down in our systems, it just continues to increase. Studies have shown that levels in humans have been doubling every three to five years. Many scientists are comparing deca-BDE to the PCBs used in adhesives, paints and lubricants that were outlawed in the 1970’s, but are still a major source of contamination in Lake Michigan today.

While PBDEs are used in our electronics and furniture, unfortunately they don’t stay put. They’ve ended up in our food supply, and have been found in the highest concentration in foods containing animal fats. Scientists have found PBDEs in house dust as well. Deca-BDE becomes airborne, lurking in the air molecules when our television gets turned on and heats up. In mattresses, the dust releases into the air that we inhale while we sleep.

One of the most alarming places these flame-retardants have been found is in breast milk. According to a Clean Water Action report, in the United States, “PBDEs have been found in breast milk of women at levels 10 to 100 times higher than those found in Europe.”

Danger to our Children

Experts believe our children are most at risk for deca-BDE toxicity because their systems are more delicate than adults, causing them to absorb more of the toxic chemicals. In a study published by the Environmental Working Group, levels as high as 114 parts per billion were reported in children, and levels in children were up to three times higher than those of their parents. In an article for WebMD, Linda Birnbaum, PhD, senior toxicologist with the EPA who reviewed the study states, “I think this study raises a red flag.”

What’s being done?

Michigan State Representative Deb Kennedy has re-introduced a bill this session to phase out deca-BDE. House Bill 4699 would phase out the manufacturing, distribution and sale of mattresses, upholstered furniture, televisions and computers in Michigan that contain deca-BDE.

One change to the bill from last session is that if a manufacturer can make a case that deca-BDE is necessary in their product, they could apply for an exemption to the ban. If this bill passes, Michigan would be one of the first states to ban deca-BDE, with Washington being the first, and Maine, Vermont and Oregon following suit.

The Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs, along with the International Association of Firefighters, supports bills that phase out PBDEs. The EPA has also been negotiating with two United States producers and one foreign producer of deca-BDE, who have voluntarily committed to end their production of the chemical in the next three years, phasing out their use in electronics by 2011.

This phase-out does not include situations in which deca-BDE is manufactured overseas and arrives in the United States already in a product, such as a television. Since the vast majority of items on store shelves in the U.S. are imported, this could be a major loophole.

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