EPA deal waves good-bye to toxic flame retardants

Negotiations between the Environmental Protection Agency and manufacturers of toxic flame-retardant chemicals will result in a three-year phase-out of the last polybrominated diphenyl ether, the deca form.

Steve Owens, EPA’s assistant administrator in the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, had this to say in a news release today:

“Though DecaBDE has been used as a flame retardant for years, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned about its impact on human health and the environment. Studies have shown that decaBDE persists in the environment, potentially causes cancer and may impact brain function. DecaBDE also can degrade to more toxic chemicals that are frequently found in the environment and are hazardous to wildlife.

“Today’s announcement by these companies to phase out decaBDE is an appropriate and responsible step to protect human health and the environment.”

Alarms bells have been sounding over PBDEs for several years. Concerns relate to liver and thyroid disease, neurological development and potential effects on the immune and reproductive systems.

Because they are persistent in the environment, these chemicals have been accumulating in the tissues of the familiar killer whales that frequent Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. See the story I wrote about toxics in orcas, October 2007.

Deca is used to reduce the risk of fire in electronics, textiles, automobiles and other applications, but other alternatives have been identified.

Today’s announcement relates to agreements with the two U.S. producers of decaBDE — Albemarle Corporation and Chemtura Corporation — along with the largest U.S. importer, ICL Industrial Products, Inc.

Under the new agreements, the companies will end production, importation and sales of decaBDE for most uses in the United States by December 31, 2012, and to end all uses by the end of 2013. Here are the letters of commitment:

Albemarle Corporation (PDF 403 kb)
Chemtura Corporation (PDF 34 kb)
ICL Industrial Products, Inc. (PDF 55 kb)

Brian Carter, global business director of Albemarle’s flame retardant group, made this comment in a prepared statement:

“While hundreds of science-based and peer-reviewed studies have shown Deca-BDE to be safe in use and one of the most efficacious flame retardants in the world, Albemarle is committed to delivering safe and effective products with increasingly smaller environmental footprints.

“Safe and environmentally sound substitutes for decabrom are available today, and we are working with our customers and the Environmental Protection Agency to implement a phase out of Deca-BDE in the coming years.”

Tony Parnell, vice president of Albemarle’s polymer solutions division, added this comment:

“In addition to our existing alternatives, Albemarle fire safety scientists have developed GreenArmor, a polymer-based flame retardant technology which is a recyclable and an eco-friendly alternative to current decabrom technology.

“Our investment in this new fire safety technology demonstrates Albemarle’s commitment to constantly seek higher-performing, sustainable alternatives to existing fire safety products.”

Meanwhile, the state of Washington remains on track to phase out PBDEs —with deca being the only one remaining. I was wondering how EPA’s agreement would mesh with Washington state’s requirements, so I called Curt Hart at the Department of Ecology.

“It is not an exact match, but it is very close,” Curt told me. “We are very pleased with the agreement that EPA has reached with these manufacturers. The good thing is that everyone now recognizes that deca is a problem as well (as other PBDEs).”

Visit Ecology’s Web site for the state’s phase-out schedule, including an important report called “Alternatives to Deca-BDE in Televisions and Computers and Residential Upholstered Furniture.”

2 thoughts on “EPA deal waves good-bye to toxic flame retardants

  1. We’re thrilled by EPA’s announcement. The agreement is a huge victory for children’s health and the environment.

    Washington state should be especially proud because it led the way with the first ever ban on deca in 2007. Bans in other states like Maine and Oregon soon followed, all but guaranteeing a manufacturer phaseout.

    While the voluntary agreement is important, enforceable bans on the chemical still need to move forward in state legislatures and Congress to ensure a complete phase-out. The voluntary agreement does not require that any replacement flame retardants be determined safe before being allowed on the market and deca could still be recycled into additional consumer products, like foam stuffing in children’s products. Thus, legislation is still necessary to address these gaps.

    Overall this is a giant victory over companies who just two years ago said phasing out deca was nearly impossible.

  2. That’s a great start…Any idea when the EPA, DNR, USCG, Dept of Ecology – are going to work together to make it a priority in Washington State to create ‘No Discharge Zones” here in the Puget Sound and stop allowing all of the commercial and private marine vessels from continuing to legally dump their onboard sewage into the Puget Sound and Salish Sea waters??
    **Especially many of the North Puget Sound whale-watching boats- who are the only ones profitting from an Endangered Species, while contributing to their demise…

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