EU moves against flame retardants

On Sept. 6, the European Union’s parliament provisionally voted to ban the use and importation of nearly all members of a family of flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Manufacturers use these compounds to protect products ranging from computer housings to upholstery fabric. So widely used are PBDEs that traces of the substances show up throughout the environment–even in human breast milk.

Because European Union (EU) parliamentary votes don’t carry the weight of law, the ban won’t go into effect unless a Council of Ministers representing the EU member states also agrees to it. Alternatively, those ministers could convince the parliament to scale back on the number of PBDEs earmarked for a phaseout.

To date, the EU’s Council of Ministers has endorsed a ban on only one class of PBDEs–so-called penta forms, which contain five bromine atoms–notes Bert-Ove Lund of the Swedish National Chemicals Inspectorate in Solna. An earlier toxicity review performed for the EU identified these as apparent environmental hormones. Like polychlorinated biphenyls (SN: 6/16/01, p. 374), PBDEs appear to trigger neurological impairments in animal tests by mechanisms that may center on the disruption of the thyroid hormone system.

Because an EU toxicity review of octa- and deca-PBDEs–forms containing eight or 10 bromine atoms–hasn’t been completed, at least some EU members may resist extending a ban to those compounds. Gwynne Lyons, a Norwich, England-based advisor to the World Wildlife Fund-Europe, says that the recent vote “should only be seen as the first skirmish in what will be a long battle on deca- and octa- [forms of PBDEs].” These account for some 80 percent of European PBDE use.

A federal review of PBDE toxicity is also underway in the United States as part of a program that is evaluating potential chemical threats to children, notes Charles Auer, who directs the Environmental Protection Agency division charged with managing that program. Under it, industry groups submit their toxicity assessments to EPA, which the agency then sends out to other scientists for an independent review. Any U.S. regulatory action against PBDEs would come only if those assessments turn up signs of a likely hazard.

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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