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

 
New York Times
10 August 2003

California to Ban Chemicals Used as Flame Retardants
By Jennifer 8. Lee

Reacting to research showing the rapid accumulation of widely used flame retardants in humans and wildlife, California will become the first state to ban the chemicals, which are suspected of contributing to learning disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity in children.

Gov. Gray Davis is scheduled to sign legislation to eventually ban flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDE's. The chemicals, developed in the 1960's, are found in the plastics and foams used in furniture and electronic equipment. The ban would start in 2008, a compromise date set by the chemical industry and California state legislators.

Of the chemicals besides pesticides that humans and wildlife absorb from the environment, only three — mercury, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls or PCB's — are known to harm health at levels that accumulate in the body. PBDE's, scientists say, are a strong candidate to be a fourth. They appear to be traveling widely around the globe, showing up in polar bears, dolphins and sperm whales.

California is following the lead of the European Union, which imposed a similar ban this year, prompted by a Swedish study that reported the levels of the chemicals in breast milk in Sweden had increased fortyfold from 1972 to 1997. China and South Korea are considering bans.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is analyzing the effect of the chemicals. Lisa Harrison, a spokeswoman, said the agency was evaluating information from the chemical industry and would "make recommendations whether additional hazard and exposure information is needed."

Research shows that the level of the chemicals in the breast milk of North American women is the highest recorded, the California Environmental Protection Agency said. The median level in the breast milk of California women is 3 to 10 times higher than the level in the milk of European women, the agency said.

The levels in the bodies of American women and babies are within the minimal safety margin often used by environmental toxicologists. Scientists say that levels in humans are rising rapidly.

Scientists liken PBDE's to PCB's, industrial chemicals that were banned in 1977 for their environmental hazard and harm to humans. The chemicals, which have similar structures, accumulate in body fat and take decades to break down in the environment.

"All you have to do is look at the molecule and say, `This is a bad scene,' " said Ross Norstrom, an environmental chemist who retired from Environment Canada, a government agency, in June.

Tests on mice at Uppsala University in Sweden show that the chemicals can harm their brains in ways similar to the harm from PCB's.

No studies of the effect of the chemicals on human health have been published, but researchers are extrapolating their concern from animal studies and knowledge about how PCB's harm humans.

"Our primary concern is that PBDE disrupts the thyroid hormone balance and causes harm to the developing brain," said Tom McDonald, a toxicologist with the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. "We're talking about subtle effects: hyperactivity, hearing loss, less ability to learn."

Two recent studies of mice show that PBDE's and PCB's may have a compound effect.

While the hazards of PCB's were first noted in the 1930's, PBDE`s have only recently emerged as a cause for concern.

"The most interesting thing about PBDE`s is that we were taken completely by surprise," said Jianwen She, an environmental biochemist with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
While the United States does not archive breast milk samples as Sweden does, American blood samples from the 1960's do not show the presence of PBDE's.

"What we could measure in the 1990's, we couldn't measure in the 1960's," said Mytro Petreas, an environmental biochemist with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
The rise in PBDE's apparently is occurring in part because the chemicals became more widely used as governments raised flammability resistance requirements for products. California has among the most stringent antiflammability requirements in the country, though the California environmental toxicologists say that samples show similar levels in women from Indiana, Colorado, New York, Texas and Canada. Scientists say it is unclear how PBDE's are getting into humans. California environmental scientists say they have observed high levels of PBDE's in household dust.
There are three types of PBDE's — penta, octa and deca. The European and California legislation ban only penta and octa, because they show up in humans and wildlife, though there is some concern that the deca form may be decomposing into the other forms.

The penta form is added to foam in cushions and mattresses, while octa and deca are put into plastics.

Great Lakes Chemical, based in Indianapolis, is the primary producer of penta and octa forms of PBDE's. The company lobbied to have the effective date of the California ban changed from 2006 to 2008, and has begun looking for flame retardant substitutes.
In response to the rising concern, a number of companies, including Ericsson, Intel, Ikea, and Sony, are phasing PBDE's out of their products.
States generally defer to the federal government in regulating toxic chemicals because of the scientific and financial burden of studying them. The emerging research, however, prompted Wilma Chan, the majority leader of the California Assembly, to propose a ban, which drew the support of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Winston Hickox, secretary of the agency characterized the federal policy as "inaction."
"It seemed to us to be irresponsible for us not to address these health risks," Mr. Hickox said.

 
   
   

 

 

 

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