10 August 2003
to Ban Chemicals Used as Flame Retardants
By Jennifer 8. Lee
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
on mice at Uppsala University in Sweden show that the chemicals
can harm their brains in ways similar to the harm from PCB's.
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.
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."
recent studies of mice show that PBDE's and PCB's may have a compound
the hazards of PCB's were first noted in the 1930's, PBDE`s have
only recently emerged as a cause for concern.
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.
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.
penta form is added to foam in cushions and mattresses, while octa
and deca are put into plastics.
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
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.
Hickox, secretary of the agency characterized the federal policy
"It seemed to us to be irresponsible for us not to address
these health risks," Mr. Hickox said.