Brominated flame retardants are chemicals that reduce the spread of fire in a variety of common products from fabrics to plastic. First introduced 30 years ago, they are now widely used despite minimal health testing, and they are rapidly building up inside our bodies. The testing that has been done indicates that brominated flame retardants are toxic to development and the levels found in some mothers and fetuses are rapidly approaching the levels shown to impair learning and behavior in laboratory experiments.
This report presents the latest scientific understanding of these toxic flame retardants in North America, their presence in our bodies and the environment, and their likely effects on children’s health. Toxic flame retardants pose risks to human health and the environment. Manufacturers of consumer products commonly add flame-retardant chemicals to plastics and other flammable materials to reduce the risk of fire. One class of these chemicals, known as brominated flame retardants, now widely contaminate the environment, are accumulating in the human body, and have the potential to harm human health. The most studied of the brominated flame retardants are the polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. North American industry used 74 million pounds of PBDEs in 1999, accounting for half the world market. These chemicals escape into the environment from common consumer products like home furniture and electronics (including TVs, computers, and others) during manufacture, use, and disposal.
PBDEs are remarkably similar to PCBs, a class of chemicals banned in 1976 because it was found to cause immune suppression, altered sexual development, cancer, delayed brain development, lower IQ, and behavioral problems like hyperactivity in humans. As with PCBs, exposure to PBDEs may be particularly harmful during a critical window of brain development during pregnancy and early childhood.
Levels of toxic flame retardants in people are rising dramatically. Some types of PBDEs concentrate in the fatty tissues of living organisms. As a result, they bioaccumulate, or build up in the food chain, and now can be found in human blood, fat tissue, and breast milk. Initial studies of PBDE contamination of breast milk indicate U.S. levels are 40 to 60 times higher than levels found in Sweden. Levels of PBDEs in animal and human tissues are growing exponentially, doubling every two to five years. At this rate, tissue levels will increase 100- to 1000-fold every 25 years.
When exposed to sunlight or when ingested by animals, some forms of PBDEs which do not themselves readily bioaccumulate may degrade in the environment into more bioaccumulative compounds. As a result, all commercial PBDE compounds should be considered bioaccumulative for policy purposes.
Levels of toxic flame retardants in people have already reached levels of concern. Recent research shows that PBDE exposure can interrupt brain development in mice, permanently impairing learning and movement. So far, scientists have not identified “safe” levels of exposure that do not produce damage. Additionally, both PCBs and PBDEs are found in humans, and their effects on brain development may be additive. The most highly exposed people may now have PBDE levels within two-fold of the levels shown to damage mice. If PBDE concentrations in people continue to double every 2.5 years, levels found in the average person will reach this threshold within ten years. Experience with PCBs shows that failure to act on early warnings can lead to irreversible environmental contamination and damage to health.
Scientists discovered the first indications of systemic harm caused by PCBs as early as 1937. However, PCBs were not banned until 1976, after hundreds of scientific studies documented widespread exposure and actual harm to human health. Further study showed new forms of health impact caused by lower levels of exposure, which continue to be documented decades after the chemicals were phased out.
Phasing out chemicals leads to reduced contamination and exposure levels. The European Union reduced the use of PBDEs in the late 1990s after finding increasing levels in the breast milk of Swedish mothers and preliminary evidence of toxic effects. Since 1998, concentrations of PBDEs in breast milk of Swedish women have declined steadily. Similarly, PCB levels found in the population began to decline after the U.S. banned the chemical. Reducing exposure prevented further harm to human health.
Safer means of fire-proofing products are widely available.
A variety of furniture, plastic, and electronics manufacturers have already deployed products that meet fire-safety standards without the use of PBDEs. Other strategies for flame-resistance include using inherently non-flammable materials and using alternative flame-retardant chemicals. For example, the furniture company IKEA recently replaced brominated flame retardants in fabrics with less toxic chemicals, and the Toshiba electronics company replaced toxic flame retardants in casings for electronic parts by switching to a non-flammable type of plastic that didn’t need any chemical additives.
The European Union has acted on early warnings of a significant health threat by banning several toxic flame retardants. In early 2003, the European Union officially banned the use of PBDEs and other toxic chemicals in electronics (such as computers and lighting) after mid-2006. A more comprehensive ban on the general marketing and use of several toxic flame retardants in Europe is on track for August 2004.
Phase Out Toxic Flame Retardants
There are still unexplored aspects of the toxicity of brominated flame retardants, and complete study would take many years. However, the evidence indicates that immediate action is warranted in California and the United States. Given the magnitude of the potential threat to public health, the rapidly increasing levels of exposure, and the availability of alternatives, this report recommends immediately phasing out the use of PBDEs and other brominated flame retardants.
Reform U.S. Chemicals Policy
The threat posed by toxic flame retardants demonstrates a national failure to effectively protect public health from toxic chemicals used in industry and placed in consumer products. Tens of thousands of industrial chemicals are on the market with little or no information about potential health impacts. Even where significant evidence of harm to public health exists, inadequate resources and legal authority prevent regulatory agencies from taking protective action.
Chemicals that are untested or known to be hazardous should not be on the market or in widespread use and distribution. U.S. chemicals policy should be reformed to ensure that manufacturers and industrial users provide regulatory agencies and the public with adequate information about their products so that agencies can act to protect public health from potentially dangerous substances before damage is done. The case of toxic flame retardants presents an apt case study of the failings of current policy.
California has the toughest furniture fire safety standards of all U.S. states. These regulations prevent fires and save lives. The U.S. Association of Fire Marshals estimates that if the United States as a whole had flammability standards for furniture as strong as those in California, the number of fires would be reduced by 4,000 per year (or 20%), and fire deaths would be reduced by half, or 400 deaths per year.1
Manufacturers of consumer products use flameretardant chemicals to meet fire safety standards. For the past three decades, one class of chemicals known as brominated flame retardants has been added to products ranging from furniture foam to upholstery fabric to the housings of televisions and other electronics. The use of brominated flame retardants, which contain the toxic chemical element bromine, has created some unanticipated problems. In the emerging case of the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), these problems are becoming all too clear. PBDEs have now spread around the world and are steadily accumulating in the tissues of human beings and other animals. From the breast tissue of women in San Francisco to the blubber of Arctic whales, these toxic chemicals are a much closer part of our lives than their manufacturers ever intended.
Lab research indicates that the toxic flame retardants now found in our bodies have the potential to disrupt the process of brain development in fetuses and infant children. Humans are constantly exposed to a mixture of these chemicals from the first day in the womb. These chemicals may be working together to interrupt normal brain development and produce other toxic effects. At the same time, various studies have found dramatically increasing numbers of children with developmental, learning, and behavior disorders over the last decade, including attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and autism.2 While it is usually impossible to connect a single chemical to a broad health trend, the National Academy of Sciences recently estimated that toxic exposures play a role in as many as 1 in 4 cases of developmental disorders.3 Toxic flame retardants could be joining lead, mercury, and PCBs among the chemicals responsible for harming children’s health and development.
Recent concern about PBDEs is eerily reminiscent of the debate over PCBs, (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the 1960s, which led to their ban in the mid 1970s. After incidents of accidental PCB poisoning prompted concern, scientists found that lowlevel exposure to PCBs was a worldwide problem. After years of study, scientists began to find adverse health effects at PCB levels found in the general population. For example, children born to mothers who had eaten PCB-contaminated fish from the Great Lakes had learning, memory, and behavioral problems. Severe and irreparable damage was found in accidental poisoning victims, including altered reproductive and neural development, immune suppression, and cancer. Even twenty-seven years after these chemicals were banned in the U.S., PCB contamination and exposure persists across the globe today.
Several brominated flame retardants are structurally quite similar to PCBs, and consequently may affect the body in similar ways. As such, brominated flame retardants may have the dubious honor of becoming the modern successor to PCBs.
Fortunately for public health, alternative ways to protect against fire are widely available. Companies are coming up with new ways to design products to be flame-resistant, using inherently nonflammable materials and switching to less toxic chemical additives in their products.
Toxic flame retardants are only one class of many different chemicals in wide use despite inadequate study of health effects and inadequate restrictions on use where health effects are known. Investigating potential hazards and taking regulatory action to protect health when threats are discovered can help lead to a world that is both safe and healthy for our children.
Figure 3: Brominated flame retardant demand in North America, 1999.32
Figure 5: Breakdown of brominated flame retardant use by industry.33
A Wire and Cabling 1%
Figure 7: Rising levels of PBDEs in harbor seal blubber from San Francisco Bay.68
Figure 8: Rising Levels of PBDEs in trout from Lake Ontario.70
Figure 9: Recently declining PBDE levels in Swedish breast milk. 72
Figure 10. Increasing PBDE levels in human breast milk from Canada and the U.S.73
Table 2: Comparing PCBs and PBDEs
Attribute PCBs PBDEs
Persists in the environment + +
Transported long distances in the air + +
Bioaccumulates + +
Disrupts thyroid hormone levels + +
Causes problems with neurological development in animal experiments + +
Exposure causes neurological damage in humans + NOT TESTED
Recognized probable carcinogen126 + NOT TESTED
Used in products found in the home, like televisions and furniture - +
Production banned in the U.S. + -
Table 3: Timeline — PCBs and PBDEs
Year PCBs Year PBDEs .
1927 Commercial production began
1930s First evidence of health impacts: Chemical industry 1970s Commercial production began
workers get chloracne, study links PCB exposure 1980 First evidence of health impacts:
and liver disease in rodents. Researchers note that flame retardants
1966 First evidence of bioaccumulation — fish (Sweden) and their byproducts may have
1969 Found in the food chain in the U.S. “considerable toxicological problems,”
1968 Accidental poisoning causes severe health problems in and document liver changes after PBDE
1,800 people in Japan, first evidence of toxicity to exposure.
fetuses. 1981 First evidence of bioaccumulation -
1970 Peak U.S. Production of PCBs, 85 million pounds per fish (Sweden)
1970s Scientists studying reproductive problems in wildlife 1990s Found in the food chain in the U.S.
from DDT identify PCBs as an additional culprit. 1994 Ability of Penta BDE to mimic hormones
1976 The U.S. Congress bans PCBs with the Toxic Substances first discovered.
Control Act. Production stops one year later. ? Peak U.S. Production of PBDEs — currently .
1990 Scientists discover health problems in children unknown
exposed to “background levels” of PCBs. 1997 Exponential increase found in milk from Swedish
1990s Scientists show that children exposed to PCBs are women, Europe begins to reduce use.
more likely to have learning disabilities. 2003 European Union bans PBDEs in electronics.
1998-2002 PBDEs shown to irreparably alter brain
development in mice.
Table 4: Examples of Manufacturers Phasing out Toxic Flame Retardant
Company What they are doing to reduce Brominated Flame Retardant Use
Apple Most Apple products contain no PBDEs in plastic parts weighing more than 25 grams.165
Ericsson PBBs and PBDEs have been totally banned from the products of this Swedish cellular phone company.
The company expected 80% of its printed wiring boards to be halogen free in 2002.166
IBM IBM produces the Intellistation, using 100% recycled plastic containing no halogenated flame
IKEA IKEA has totally phased out the use of BFRs in its products, including furniture, and is
working steadily toward being completely halogen free.168
Intel Intel has replaced BFRs in most plastics, and completely replaced PBBs and PBDEs.169
Motorola Motorola produces one phone that is BFR free, and has successfully replaced BFRs in laminated circuit
NEC NEC produces a plastic called NuCycle which is halogen free and phosphorous free. It is used
in producing casings for their products and contains recycled polycarbonate.171
Panasonic In 1999, Panasonic produced a television without halogenated flame retardants in wires, the casing,
or in a number of the circuit boards. Products which use some halogen free plastics include PCs,
air conditioners, televisions, and washing machines.172
Phillips Phillips Consumer Electronics has a list of banned substances that include PBBs and PBDEs.
Products are evaluated against this list before introduction.173
Sony Sony’s green management plan calls for the full elimination of BFRs from its products by 2003.174