Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers

San Jose Mercury News
8 July 2003

California considers restricting flame-retardant chemical
Don Thompson, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO - The state's top environmental official on Monday backed a proposal to make California the first state to ban two forms of chemicals used as flame retardants.

California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Winston Hickox cited research showing the chemicals commonly used in upholstery, electronics and other foam and plastic products accumulate in the blood of mothers and their newborn children.

State lawmakers are considering restrictions similar to those recently adopted by the European Union, which will ban their use by mid-2004. Though some U.S. manufacturers have voluntarily stopped using what are collectively known as PBDEs - polybrominated diphenyl ethers - Hickox said the chemicals should be regulated nationally.

Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, D-Oakland, said she hopes approval of her proposed California ban "will spark the rest of the nation to take action."

It was an earlier trendsetting move by California in the mid-1970s that prompted manufacturers to search for flame retardant chemicals including those the state now wants to ban, said Leif Magnuson, a pollution prevention coordinator with the U.S. EPA. The state set fire retardant standards for flexible foam used in upholstered furniture that "has become sort of the de facto industry standard," he said.

In the last nine months, the U.S. EPA has asked manufacturers to disclose their toxicity studies, which are currently under review. Magnuson expects a decision by year's end to seek more study; to ask for voluntary restrictions; or to ban use of the chemicals, though that step would be "very unlikely."

In the face of federal "inaction," Hickox said the state should ban chemicals that he said "raise serious public health questions." There are other less dangerous fire retardants available, Hickox said.

The level of the chemicals found in European women's breast milk declined after the ban there, and Hickox said he expects similar results in California if the ban is adopted.

Citing research partly developed by the state EPA, Hickox said the chemicals can disrupt the thyroid and hurt children's brain development.

In March, California researchers reported that Bay Area women have three to 10 times greater amounts of the chemical flame retardant in their breast tissue than either European or Japanese women. Indiana University researchers reported at the same time that levels in Indiana and California women and infants tested 20 times higher than levels reported in Sweden and Norway, where the ban is set to take effect this year.

A study published by the journal Environmental Science & Technology in 2001 found North American mothers had breast-milk PBDE levels at least 40 times the highest concentrations found in Sweden. And in 1998, Swedish scientists reported levels of PBDE in breast milk had increased 40-fold since 1972.

The levels in North American women are the highest in the world and are nearing levels that have been shown to damage learning, memory and behavior in laboratory mice, Hickox said. The chemicals have been widely found, from San Francisco harbor seals to Great Lakes birds and Arctic polar bears.

Similar in effect to PCBs and DDT - chemicals banned decades ago in the U.S. - PBDE is what's called a persistent organic pollutant, or POP. Such chemicals are persistent in two ways: they remain in the environment for years, and they can build up in the body over a lifetime.

Chan's bill is pending in the Senate after it was approved in the Assembly without Republican support. It would ban by 2008 two industrial formulations of PBDEs: pentabrominated diphenyl ethers (penta BDEs) and octabrominated diphenyl ethers (octa BDEs), both banned in Europe.

Another form, decabromodiphenyl ethers (deca BDEs), commonly used in televisions, computers, stereos, and plastic toys, also is being banned in Europe but would not be affected by the California legislation because it does not appear to accumulate in tissues as readily.

Twenty health and environmental groups backed her legislation; there were no groups in opposition. A telephone message was not immediately returned Monday from the Chemical Manufacturers Association, which has a Brominated Flame Retardants Industry Panel.


Read the bill, AB302, at www.sen.ca.gov





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