[Pharmwaste] The 'toxic effect' of flame retardants
dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
Mon Jun 4 10:49:29 EDT 2007
The 'toxic effect' of flame retardants
One compound being targeted is 'Deca,' but scientists don't fully
understand its hazards
By Douglas Fischer, STAFF WRITER
Inside Bay Area
Article Last Updated:06/03/2007 02:46:07 AM PDT
OAKLAND - Flame retardants. We find them everywhere: the dust under your
couch, the foam in your couch, in your television, your blood, even
They represent an amazing spectrum of chemistry - more than 300
compounds, with at least 70 available commercially.
One of the most widely used is generating the most heat, with attempts
to ban it in various stages of development in California, Illinois,
Maine, Washington and Europe.
More than 56,000 tons were infused into consumer goods worldwide last
year, chiefly TV sets. Yet scientists are just beginning to suspect that
what they know about the chemical is fundamentally wrong.
Known as "Deca," it is a close cousin to PCBs and the bigger brother of
two flame retardants already banned in Europe and several states,
Deca likely contaminates everything with a pulse, but scientists don't
fully understand the risk it presents.
Now new evidence from California's Department of Toxic Substances
Control and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science suggests Deca
readily accumulates and is digested in wildlife, particularly peregrine
falcons and other raptors that have only recently rebounded from DDT
exposure in the 1970s.
High Deca levels found in addled raptor eggs has recast the debate on
the chemical. What was once thought to be environmentally stable and not
readily absorbed appears to be both quick to degrade and readily
"What's troubling is our assumptions," said Rob Hale, a professor at the
Virginia Institute who led some of the research. "We long assumed these
products did not leach out of plastics or get into the environment. That
was etched in stone.
"Now out pops data on birds of prey ... that all point to not only does
Deca get out and get into organisms, it can also be broken down into
(compounds) that have all these toxic effects."
Deca is part of a family of flame retardants known as PBDEs, or
polybrominated diphenyl ethers. It's the only PBDE still on the market.
The tonnage sold in the United States today is near that of PCBs at
their peak in 1970.
Deca's siblings, Penta and Octa, were banned earlier in the decade in
California and Europe after scientists concluded both compounds were
bioaccumulative and toxic. The largest domestic manufacturer ceased
making the chemicals in 2005.
Deca escaped any ban in part because scientists couldn't find evidence
of similar effects. (The names come from the number of bromine atoms
attached to the molecule: 10 for Deca, eight for Octa, five for Penta.
The fewer atoms, the smaller the molecule and the more toxic and
persistent it is for living organisms.)
Industry groups note that the chemical is astoundingly effective at
stopping a very real risk - fire - in plastics. Manufacturers don't need
much Deca to protect products; plastics with Deca can be readily
recycled, unlike those with other additives; the amounts contaminating
humans remains, so far, fairly minuscule; and much less is known about
alternative flame retardants.
"What's the right balance?" asked John Kyte, North American director for
the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, representing Deca's
"Deca does not pose a threat to human health and the environment. Can I
say that definitively? No I can't. But no one can for any compound.
"The bottom line is we don't want to produce - and we don't want to have
on the market - a product that's not safe," he said.
The egg data, in conjunction with other ongoing research, is challenging
Researchers with the California's Environmental Chemistry Laboratory
have found some of the highest levels of Deca ever found in failed
peregrine eggs taken from nests in the Bay Area. The eggs include one
from George and Gracie, San Francisco's famous pair of falcons who took
up residence this spring on the Bay Bridge.
The values range from about 0.5 parts per million to 3.5 parts per
million and are 10 to 15 times higher than what scientists find in
They're also nearly 100 times beyond Deca loads found in aquatic species
such as harbor seals and terns and what is commonly found in humans,
although data is scant on the latter point and some evidence suggests
children are more contaminated than their parents.
Such a concentration appears small: A drop or three of Deca into a
swimming pool. But the molecules are many: Any drop of water from that
pool would contain 31 trillion molecules of Deca.
What worries scientists is that they were looking in the wrong places
for Deca. Peregrines in urban areas eat pigeons and sparrows -
scavengers of human society. It appears now - and for reasons not fully
understood - that Deca accumulates in such a terrestrial food web but
doesn't in the more well-studied aquatic food web.
"We haven't thought these things were getting in biota in any amounts,"
said Kim Hooper, who is supervising the research at DTSC. "Now that it
is in biota, you say, 'What are the terrestrial wildlife we've looked
"Well, the answer is essentially none."
Raptor researchers say they doubt Deca endangers the birds the way DDT
or PCBs did a generation ago. Thirty years ago, California had only two
peregrine nests statewide. Today there are between 200 and 300.
Deca won't likely endanger that, said Brian Walton, coordinator of the
Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group at the University of
California, Santa Cruz.
Still, nearly a quarter of all nests fail to fledge a chick every year.
"One of the problems with these fire retardants is we don't have any
idea. We don't know what they do to falcons and eggs," he said.
"There's a variety of things that can cause a bird to die or a nest to
fail. In the past 30 years we've focused on DDT and PCBs, but there's
still a lot of unexplained nest failures."
There's also a lot of evidence that Deca quickly breaks down in the body
and the environment to smaller, more toxic compounds - such as Octa,
said Heather Stapleton, an assistant professor at Duke University's
Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.
The science on this is largely settled, she said.
But not to industry, which maintains the chemical is largely inert. That
uncertainty has left lawmakers paralyzed.
Maine was one of the first states to buck the trend and ban Deca, with a
bill clearing the Legislature last week. The state of Washington also
has a bill on its governor's desk that would ban Deca once alternatives
But in California, two bills are languishing in the Assembly and may not
muster the 41 votes they need to clear the chamber by Friday's deadline.
The first, by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-San Jose, would ban Deca
outright in California. The second, by Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San
Francisco, would ban a wide class of brominated and other so-called
halogenated flame retardants from pillows, bedding and other domestic
"We're taking on the manufacturers of all consumer products," Lieber
said last week. "This is a big struggle.
"But we have to push this as hard as we can. There's no doubt in my mind
that this is the biggest public health threat we're facing."
Contact Douglas Fischer at dfischer at angnewspapers.com or (510) 208-6425.
Deborah L. DeBiasi
Email: dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
WEB site address: www.deq.virginia.gov
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
Office of Water Permit Programs
Industrial Pretreatment/Toxics Management Program
Mail: P.O. Box 1105, Richmond, VA 23218 (NEW!)
Location: 629 E. Main Street, Richmond, VA 23219
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