Chemical Reaction: Two flame retardants to phase out in 2004

On Monday, the sole U.S. manufacturer of two flame retardants pledged to cease making both products next year. The firm had initiated discussions with the Environmental Protection Agency about a potential phase-out just last month (SN: 11/1/03, p. 275: Flaming Out? Days may be numbered for two fire retardants). This week’s announcement accelerates by 4 years the compounds’ recently mandated elimination in California. The European Union had already announced a ban on the two flame retardants, which are widely used in furniture and plastic products. That ban is slated to go into effect next year.

The chemicals–mixes of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)–have become ubiquitous pollutants in both the environment and people. Recent animal tests have shown that these chemicals are harmful at doses similar to those that would result in the milk, blood, and fat concentrations that had been measured in some people in North America (SN: 10/25/03, p. 266: New PCBs?).

EPA “commends Great Lakes Chemical Corporation for taking this action voluntarily,” says Stephen L. Johnson, the agency’s acting deputy administrator. The move will accelerate a shift from these PBDEs to safer alternatives, he says.

The products to be phased out are known as the penta mix and octa mix because they contain predominantly PBDEs with five and eight bromine atoms per molecule, respectively. Manufacturers add the penta mix primarily to foam in furniture and the octa mix to the plastic parts in personal computers and small appliances.

Great Lakes, based in Indianapolis, has already developed an alternative known as Firemaster 550 for use in foams. EPA’s preliminary evaluation of the product concludes that the new flame retardant doesn’t persist in the environment or accumulate in animals and isn’t acutely toxic to aquatic organisms. The agency hasn’t yet determined whether Firemaster 550 might be toxic to other animals and people.

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Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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