[Pharmwaste] Flame retardant may be more toxic than thought
dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
Mon Jun 11 08:53:58 EDT 2007
Flame retardant may be more toxic than thought
New data suggests ubiquitous chemical accumulating in bodies of humans,
By Douglas Fischer, STAFF WRITER
Inside Bay Area
Article Last Updated:06/08/2007 07:43:00 AM PDT
OAKLAND - Previous assumptions about the health risks of one of the
world's most widely used flame retardants are wrong, scientists say,
with new data suggesting the compound is both more toxic and widespread
in humans and wildlife than thought.
The chemical, known as "Deca," is a close cousin to PCBs and the bigger
brother of two flame retardants already banned in Europe and several
states, including California.
A bill attempting to banish Deca from consumer products in California
fell short Thursday evening in the Assembly and appeared doomed.
More than 56,000 tons of Deca were infused into consumer goods worldwide
last year, chiefly TV sets. Scientists knew Deca leached out into the
environment, contaminating house dust and food and, by extension, our
blood and breast milk. But they thought it was largely inert, harmless
and quickly passed from our bodies.
Evidence from California's Department of Toxic Substances Control and
the Virginia Institute of Marine Science undermines those assumptions.
What was thought to be harmless is likely not, say scientists conducting
the research. Deca appears to be quickly absorbed by organisms and
quickly broken down into long-lasting and far more toxic compounds.
Maine last week passed a bill banning the compound; a similar measure is
already on the books in Washington state. Illinois lawmakers are also
contemplating a ban.
"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."
The data comes from addled eggs of peregrine falcons and other raptors
in California, Washington, the East Coast and China.
The two dozen or so eggs tested so far indicate those raptors -
including two falcon pairs nesting in the Bay Area - have the highest
chemical loads of Deca of any living organism tested, a red flag for a
species that only recently rebounded from DDT exposure in the late
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.
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 rings, 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 say they
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, suggests
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
Swedish raptors. One egg from China tested at 12 parts per million,
The levels are nearly 100 times beyond body burdens found in aquatic
species such as harbor seals and terns. It is also 100 times what is
commonly found in humans, although data is scant on the latter point and
some evidence suggests children are more contaminated than their
Such a concentration seems 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.
Kim Hooper, a research supervisor in DTSC's Environmental Chemistry lab,
believes researchers misread the chemical because they focused initially
on aquatic species and thus never noticed a problem. Peregrines in urban
areas eat pigeons and sparrows - scavengers of human society. It appears
now - and for reasons little understood - that Deca accumulates in such
a terrestrial food web but doesn't in the more well-studied aquatic food
"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.
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. And
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 was
earlier, with the governor in April inking into law a bill that would
ban Deca once safe and suitable alternatives are found.
But in California, a bill by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber,
D-San Jose, to ban Deca outright in California could only muster 30 of
the 41 votes necessary to clear the Assembly Thursday.
A different bill banning a wide class of brominated and chlorinated
flame retardants from mattresses, bedding and domestic furniture did
clear the Assembly late Wednesday. But while Deca is subject to that
ban, manufacturers say they don't use Deca in household furniture or
"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."
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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