Magazine article Science News

Days May Be Numbered for Two Fire Retardants

Magazine article Science News

Days May Be Numbered for Two Fire Retardants

Article excerpt

This August, at a meeting of Environmental Protection Agency scientists who are studying emerging pollutants, one family of chemicals unexpectedly stole the show: brominated flame retardants. Recently slated for bans in Europe and California, two classes of these compounds--mixes of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)--have had a low profile within the agency. But rank-and-file chemists and toxicologists raised what became the meeting's central question: What would it take for EPA to consider nationwide bans?

As it turns out, the U.S. manufacturer of both flame retardants has taken things into its own hands.

On Oct. 24, EPA issued a terse statement: "Great Lakes Chemical Corp. has initiated discussions with EPA regarding a possible voluntary phase-out of penta- and octa-PBDEs along with a full evaluation of a viable alternative." This week, Great Lakes spokesperson Wendy Chance acknowledged that her Indianapolis-based company had prompted the discussions and would "work aggressively with [EPA] on the issue."

PBDEs are molecules that can hold up to 10 bromine atoms in 209 different configurations, or congeners. Commercial mixtures of PBDEs used as flame retardants are typically dominated by congeners with a given number of bromines. The penta mix, with mostly 5-bromine PBDEs, is used to make foams, paints, and wire coatings resistant to burning. The octa formulation, with mostly 8-bromine PBDEs, is used primarily to flameproof plastic casings on office equipment.

PBDEs leach from treated products and have become ubiquitous, including in the bodies of people (SN: 10/13/01, p. …

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