Everyday Poisons

Are fire retardants actually a toxic hazard?

Laurent Cilluffo

When Robert Hale travelled down to Chesapeake Bay on the coast of Virginia to take a professorship at the Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, he expected to be spending his days out on the water, not investigating the dusty and, as it turns out, dangerously toxic contents of household vacuum-cleaner bags. After all, Hale, a leading environmental chemist, had been hired in 1987 to study the effect pesticides and other cancer-causing chemicals were having on bass, carp, and catfish.

Hale was doing just that until he hit upon a troubling mystery: while his fish samples showed traces of many well-known contaminants, they were also saturated with a whole new class of chemicals, known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or pbdes. The presence of these chemicals, widely used in textiles, plastics, and furniture foams as supposedly safe fire retardants, puzzled Hale.

The more he investigated, the more pbdes he found—in the air near plastic factories, in the dust particles falling from decaying polyurethane foam, and in sewage used as agricultural fertilizer. Almost from the beginning, Hale was bothered by a nagging question: if the chemicals were in fish and virtually everywhere in the atmosphere, could they be building up in humans as well? It was a frightening thought—pbdes are a close chemical cousin of pcbs, the dreaded carcinogen that was banned in the 1970s. Finally, two years ago, a hunch led him to analyze the contents of a vacuum-cleaner bag taken from a colleague’s home. And just like the fish he had been studying, the dust was saturated with a toxic mix of fire-retardant chemicals.

The vacuum-cleaner dust, now filling dozens of bottles lining the shelves in his lab, underscores the most disturbing point of all—short of donning a gas mask when you enter your own home, there is virtually no escaping these toxins. They inhabit every nook and cranny—the foam in couches, mattresses, curtains, carpets, even the materials in computers and televisions. Automobiles offer no escape, with the same chemicals in the seats and plastic components. In the modern office, industrial strength doses are built into electronic hardware, video screens, and acres of carpeting. “The highest levels we’ve ever seen in a non-plastic item was in household dust,” says Hale. “We’ve always pointed the finger at industry and the manufacturing processes. Here, we are saying, ‘It has to be people’s homes.’ ”

Slowly—tragically, too slowly—politicians are starting to heed the mounting evidence to support claims that the flame-retardant chemicals swirling invisibly through our homes can cause neurological damage in children and impair hormone production in adults. According to some of the latest studies, even minute doses of brominated fire retardants impair attention, learning, memory, and behaviour in laboratory animals.

Scientists at Environment Canada and Health Canada are so concerned that in May they recommended that the federal government remove octa-bde and penta-bde, two of three types of pbde formulations, from the market. The European Union, California, and in August New York State have banned the two formulas. But there was no mention of pbdes in October’s Speech from the Throne, in which the Liberal government outlined their environmental initiatives. So far, Canadian politicians seem more interested in talking to the pbde-industry lobby than in taking immediate action to end what some researchers believe could become one of the worst toxic-contamination disasters in history.

“I have considerable human health concerns,” says Miriam Diamond, a professor of environmental science at the University of Toronto. “There is a deep-seated conservatism that has prevented us from acting proactively even when we have evidence from our pcb experience, which suggests we should exercise precaution.”

Incredibly, even as the evidence mounts for banning pbdes outright, more are being used than ever before. Nearly 300,000 tons are produced annually, and contamination levels across the continent are doubling every five years. More than fifteen million Americans are now saturated with high levels of pbdes. At a major conference in Toronto on brominated flame retardants last June, an official from the California Environmental Protection Agency said contamination levels for those fifteen million people have reached the “margin of safety.”

Because of the chemical similarity with pcbs, Hale is deeply worried. “Many of them seem to act a lot like pcbs in the body,” he says, “which is no great surprise given their similar chemistry and similar role as fire retardants.”

Swedish researchers first started tracking pbdes in the environment in the late 1970s, Hale explains while reaching across a filing cabinet to pick up a fist-sized chunk of polyurethane foam—a substance which, recent tests show, deteriorates into a fine, easily inhaled dust. But even though the Swedes suggested human pbde contamination was pervasive, enduring, and harmful, the movement to ban them in Europe and North America has only recently gathered steam, delayed by the industry’s claim that brominated flame retardants remain stable and do not migrate from the products they’re used in.

Now, in the face of growing evidence that the myriad consumer goods our civilization depends on have set a major health threat loose in our homes, government regulators are under pressure to explain why pbdes were allowed to be used in the first place. The short answer is simple enough: brominated flame retardants were developed and marketed long before the government started subjecting industrial chemicals to regulatory scrutiny.

Prior to that, companies were largely free to introduce chemicals into their manufacturing process without comprehensive scrutiny. According to Claude-André Lachance, who served as parliamentary secretary to Liberal justice and trade ministers in the late 1970s, and has been public affairs director for the Canadian arm of the US chemical giant Dow since 1986, huge numbers of potentially toxic chemicals have “grandfather status.” Translation: they were never actually reviewed by any government agency, and that lack of oversight raises disturbing questions about how safe many of these chemicals are.

Hale offers a more complicated answer. From the 1970s on, whenever safety issues surrounding the chemicals were raised, the value of pbdes as flame retardants superseded concerns about their toxicity. “Government safety regulators probably figured these things will help our fire-safety regulators,” he says. “That double layer of regulatory accountability makes it even harder for anybody to admit they made a mistake.”

But slowly governments are accepting that a terrible mistake has been made and are banning octa-bde and penta-bde, two of three commercial versions of pbdes, primarily contained in polyurethane foams and rigid plastics used in consumer appliances. The third formulation of fire retardant, known as deca-bde, used in textiles, computers, TVs, and electronic components, is under growing scrutiny and could also be banned in some jurisdictions.

Health and Environment officials recommended last May that Ottawa follow the lead of the EU, California, and now New York, and severely limit octa-bde and penta-bde by declaring them to be toxic. But that review has run into a storm of opposition from pbde manufacturers. Once again, the industry lobby’s defence of pbdes comes down to fire prevention.

According to the Bromine Science and Environment Forum—a Washington, DC, lobby group funded by American pbde manufacturers Albermarle Corp. and Great Lakes Chemical Corp., as well as icl Corp. of Israel and Japan’s Tosoh Corp.—the chemicals are indispensable fire suppressants. The presence of fire retardants in consumer products, the Bromine Forum claims, saved as many as three thousand lives in Britain between 1988 and 2000, as well as 280 people in the United States in 2000.

The plastics industry generates $310 billion in revenues annually in the US alone. And Marion Axmith, director general of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, which represents plastics users in the automotive, construction, packaging, vinyl, and recycling industries in this country, also emphasizes pbdes’ fire-suppression capabilities at every opportunity. “The purpose of these chemicals is to protect the public and prevent fires,” she says bluntly. “From that perspective, the public is protected.” But when asked about toxicity levels in our homes and offices, she replies: “I’m not a scientist.”

With mounting scientific evidence that these chemicals be banned, some industry giants may be getting ready to drop pbdes. One of the first to do so was the Swedish furniture maker ikea, which in 2002 switched from brominated flame retardants in furniture to phosphorus-based fire-protection chemicals. “It’s very often a bad sign,” says Magnus Bjork, who until recently was ikea’s US-based product laws and standards chief, “when you have something persistent and man-made accumulating in human tissue.”

Bjork says his company’s move to eradicate pbdes from its products came after they looked at research that revealed a potential disaster. “We’d heard rumours about possible endocrine disruption. And we were concerned that disposal of products made with pbdes might generate toxic compounds. What we learned didn’t make us less worried.”

Scientists working with the Canadian government are also worried. Danie Dubé, who assesses the safety of chemicals for Environment Canada, says pbdes were among 123 substances to be screened for safety under a new system adopted in 2001. The screen was developed to rapidly assess the backlog of 23,000 chemicals requiring review before 2006 under the new Canadian Environmental Protection Act, passed in 1999.

Seven formulations of pbdes became the first chemicals to be examined after they were appraised under “red flag” safety criteria, which included scientific research, industrial production volumes, environmental and animal contamination levels, and international bans. Remarkably, pbdes raised concerns in every category. Finally, decades after these chemicals were first used in consumer goods, the government formally began investigating how safe they actually are.

Government scientists made their results known when they recommended the government move to restrict the use of two pbde mixtures, largely used in polyurethane foams and rigid plastics in consumer appliances. And they suggested more research be done on the third mixture, known as deca-bde, just as production of deca-bde is being ramped up around the world in response to the bans against penta-bde and octa-bde.

Even so, in the face of a stiff industry lobby, no one is sure when, or if, Environment Minister Stéphane Dion will move to implement the advice of his own scientists and ban the penta-bde and octa-bde formulations from the market, let alone sharply limit the use of deca-bde.

Axmith and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association along with the Washington, DC-based lobby group Bromine Science and Environment Forum are leading the opposition to any embargo on deca-bde. Both are challenging Ottawa on the grounds that Canadian researchers used faulty methodology in their research.

In Axmith’s view, the seven pbde compounds reviewed by the government should have been examined separately. “In order for Environment Canada and Health Canada to get through screening 23,000 chemicals, they’ve chosen to use the approach of analyzing families of compounds,” she says. “But you can’t put them all in the same basket.” The Bromine Forum goes further, claiming Canadian scientists should never have screened deca-bde for safety,even on a precautionary basis. “They made a mistake,” explains Peter O’Toole, the Forum’s spokesperson, before adding an assertion now under attack by numerous researchers. “Deca-bde,” he says, “has never been found to be persistent in the environment, to bioaccumulate, or to be toxic. So it should never have been reviewed.”

The environment minister’s office won’t comment on the dispute while it is under review. But Don Gutzman and John Pasternak, the Environment Canada scientists who led the pbde review, say because the seven chemical classifications share the same molecular base structure and similar chemical characteristics, it was correct to review them as a family of chemicals.

The extent of industry opposition to the Canadian findings is clearly set out on the Bromine Forum’s website, where the industry claims “brominated flame retardants probably save more lives by preventing and limiting fires, than most other chemical substances.” To counter growing health concerns, the website includes findings by Professor Martin van den Berg from the University of Utrecht’s Institute of Risk Assessment Sciences, claiming deca-bde in human blood does not pose a health risk. They also note that the EU’s Scientific Risk Assessment authorities issued a risk assessment of deca-bde in May 2004 and decided that no restrictions were needed on the use of deca-bde owing to “lack of identified risks.”

The site promotes the Forum’s own science, which not surprisingly concludes that “there is no consumer risk from exposure” to consumer products laden with pbdes, and offers studies by other groups to support that claim.

When pressed for detailed information about studies supporting the Forum’s position, O’Toole admits that they only apply to deca-bde, the one formulation of flame retardant that federal environmental scientists do not yet want to restrict. Nor does the Forum want to deal with the fact that its findings are heavily contested by dozens of more recent studies by academic and government scientists around the world.

The Bromine Forum also rejects some independent research showing the chemicals to be dangerous. Two such studies were conducted by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, DC-based environmental group, and by Computer TakeBack, a nation-wide campaign dedicated to making computers environmentally friendly.

The Computer TakeBack study, which focused on computers as a source of household and workplace pbde contamination, concluded that “computers are likely to be a significant source of deca-bde exposure in the dust of homes, offices, schools, and businesses. All exposures, no matter how small, are of concern because deca-bde is a bioaccumulative substance. This means that multiple exposures to low levels of deca- bde add up over time and build up in the body. There is no safe dose associated with these chemicals.”

The Environmental Working Group conducted what it describes as the first nation-wide test for brominated fire retardants in US household dust. It found unexpectedly high levels of “neurotoxic” pbde chemicals in every home sampled, including one home with levels “twice as high as the maximum level previously reported by any dust study worldwide.” The Working Group study also concluded that pbde concentrations found in house dust “are much higher than levels previously reported in people, animals or the environment, and pose a more direct risk of exposure to people, especially children, who continually ingest or inhale dust. Even minute doses of brominated fire retardants impair attention, learning, memory and behavior in laboratory animals.”

Sonya Lunder, the author of the study, believes that even if the chemicals are banned, high levels of toxic contamination will remain for decades. “We are now completely surrounded by them in our homes and offices,” she says. “It’s just shameless in the face of strong scientific evidence to deny that pbdes in either food or household dust present a risk.”

The Working Group’s findings made headlines in the US and were presented in June at Brominated Flame Retardants 2004, when the largest-ever forum of pbde scientists, regulators, and manufacturers convened in a University of Toronto theatre—which just happened to be fitted-out with luxurious foam-padded seats and wall-to-wall carpeting swathing every inch of the floors and even some of the walls.

Scores of papers on every aspect of pbde safety were presented at the conference by a remarkably cosmopolitan register of the world’s top flame retardant experts, along with major presentations from US and Canadian regulators, lengthy abstracts of which remain freely available at the bfr 2004 website <bfr2004.com>.

Nevertheless, O’Toole says the Bromine Science and Environment Forum’s mandate (“dedicated to furthering the scientific understanding of bromine products”) doesn’t require mentioning the conference on its own website. “There were a lot of people we disagree with at bfr 2004,” he says, when pressed on why his website might want to at least mention the most important scientific congress ever held on brominated flame retardants.

Among the many bde researchers O’Toole says the Bromine Forum disagrees with were two representatives of the California Environmental Protection Agency, which, like the EU, has passed a ban on octa-bde and penta-bde, while driving ahead with more research into deca-bde. Researchers from both the EU and California delivered powerful messages about the harm deca-bde could unleash in the environment. They also dismissed the industry’s claim that Canadian regulators had no right to review deca-bde for safety. In fact, they strongly argued that the latest research proves beyond a doubt that deca-bde is unsafe. Kim Hooper, from the California epa’s Hazardous Materials Laboratory, suggested that new data indicate deca-bde is exactly what the industry says it isn’t—harmful. According to Hooper, “Deca-bde breaks down in the environment, disperses to even remote locations, [accumulates] in wildlife and humans, and causes neurodevelopmental toxicity.”

Thomas McDonald, of the California epa’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, delivered a similarly striking paper, stressing that levels of pbdes among North Americans are forty to seventy times higher than in Europe and Japan. And thanks to widespread pbde contamination in food, homes, offices, and the environment, McDonald has calculated that as many as fifteen million Americans may already have been contaminated. “If humans are as sensitive as animals to pbde-induced developmental toxicity,” says McDonald, “then the current margin of safety appears low.”

Animals and fish are definitely being contaminated, says Michael Ikonomou, a research scientist at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans laboratory in Sidney, BC. In some cases, he says, fish are being poisoned at rates that outpace worldwide growth in pbde contamination.

The presence of deca-bde in humans and wildlife is now at the centre of the growing debate. While low levels of deca-bde have been found in humans, researchers say the results are misleading because it rapidly breaks down into different types of pbdes, including octa-bde and penta-bde.

From his vantage point as the organizer of bfr 2004, and through his research at Environment Canada, Mehran Alaee may be the most knowledgeable person in the world about deca-bde. He says the reason the chemical is not showing up in large amounts in humans is partly because scientists lack the technology to detect it. “Up until a few years ago we weren’t able to measure deca-bde,” Alaee says. “Measuring the other flame retardants on the market is very easy, but deca-bde has been more challenging. We’re only just arriving at that level of technological maturity.” But, he says, that’s about to change: “My belief is that this is not a very stable chemical. The question is, what is deca-bde decaying into?” So far, says Alaee, it looks increasingly possible that deca-bde is degrading into other forms of pbdes. For example, some researchers have concluded that within minutes of exposure to the sun, deca-bde begins to “dehalogenate” in a process that produced forty-three other brominated chemicals.

Other findings are more frightening, suggesting that once deca-bde is ingested into the human body, it rapidly breaks down into different types of brominates, including those contained in penta-bde and octa-bde, the two commercial mixtures that Canadian government scientists want restricted.

So why doesn’t Ottawa simply ban the use of deca-bde along with other versions? The problem, Alaee says, is that without proper technology there is no accurate way to measure for it and come to an indisputable conclusion. “We don’t know what’s happening to it,” he says. “And without knowing, we can’t act, unless we want to invoke the Precautionary Principle.”

That Precautionary Principle is a research mandate requiring that government and industry prove a chemical to be safe before marketing the product. The concept has been evolving since the 1930s, when it was determined that petroleum molecules can be reconfigured into a seemingly infinite variety of formulations including plastic and pesticides.

Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring, an investigation into the pesticide industry that was serialized in the New Yorker, espoused the Precautionary Principle in 1962. She faced enormous opposition from the industry, but Silent Spring became the most influential ecological book ever published. “We have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife and man itself,” wrote Carson in one of many passages on pesticides, which might have just as easily been written about flame-retardant chemicals. “The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can only do so when in full possession of the facts.”

In Canada, some three decades after Silent Spring was published, a parliamentary committee sought to have the Precautionary Principle entrenched in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, a law which, when passed in 1999, was supposed to prevent contamination scandals, like the one now engulfing pbdes.

For former Ontario Liberal MP Karen Kraft Sloan, fighting to have the Precautionary Principle entrenched in law was a bittersweet experience. She spent nine of her ten years in government as a member of the Standing Committee on the Environment, including a stint as a parliamentary secretary for the environment between 1996 and 1998. “I call it the bill of a thousand cuts,” she says about the long fight with polluters and Jean Chrétien’s government over implementation of the law. “The whole idea was to move from pollution control to pollution prevention,” says Sloan, “although that didn’t quite match what was acceptable to the government and industry.”

In the end, Ottawa stopped short of mandating the Principle in legislation and instead opted to make it voluntary. So, in a typically Canadian compromise, the bill could be interpreted to mean that polluters are expected, but not legally required, to implement the Precautionary Principle by ensuring their products are safe before they are released into the market. “Any real opportunity the government had to operationalize [enshrine] the Precautionary Principle was not met with success,” says Sloan. “Maybe the owners of the major corporations don’t eat the same food and drink the same water as we do. As for the bureaucrats, after years of cutbacks I think they were reluctant to be required to do things they don’t have the resources to do.”

Weak as the law may be, Health Canada scientists praise it for at least empowering officials to review such chemicals and recommend a ban. But while government scientists point to Health Canada’s review of the risks to humans presented by pbdes as an example of how the system is working, other pbde experts say the regulatory process remains deeply flawed.

One such critic is Miriam Diamond, the University of Toronto environmental chemist. Like Hale, and his discovery of toxins in vacuum-cleaner bags, she became interested in pbdes after she found high levels of contamination on office windows, and even higher volumes in a study of contaminants released during the incineration of the World Trade Center towers. She believes, even with the Precautionary Principle mentioned in the new Environmental Protection Law, Health Canada was too timid in its pbde recommendations.

She thinks significant volumes of pbdes are being ingested in household dust. And Diamond and her students have published studies, freely available to Health Canada reviewers, suggesting indoor air in Ontario contains brominated flame-retardant concentrations up to twenty times greater than outdoor air, with concentrations in urban areas three times greater than in rural areas.

Surprisingly, nearly half of the contamination coating windowpanes in Ontario was deca-bde. As a result, she believes deca-bde should be restricted on a precautionary basis. “What we suspect,” says Diamond, “is that concentrations are greatest in dust in homes with new consumer durables still off-gassing pbdes. Things like carpets, polyurethane in furniture, and the plastics in new cars as well.”

One of Canada’s top pbde investigators, Mark Feeley, a Health Canada risk assessor, says government scientists are aware of studies done that show heavy concentrations of the toxins in household air. But Health Canada focuses mainly on food in the risk-assessment summary it provided the public. “We were going on the best available evidence, which is now at least a year out of date,” says Feeley.

Former federal environment minister David Anderson says he’d be “pretty quick’’ to support the reviewers’ recommendations that two of the three brominated flame-retardant products be banned, while deca-bde be registered for toxic control pending further study.

As for possible oversights and flaws in the review process, Anderson is unapologetic. “We have excellent people,”he says, “and we have excellent labs.” Canadian government scientists like Mehran Alaee, he maintains, lead the world in the investigation of pbdes. “Government labs will do the work that others won’t,” he notes, before acknowledging that scientific research is underfunded by Ottawa. “There’s got to be a greater emphasis on investigation,” says Anderson. “It’s a major failure of the Liberal governments, followed by a major failure on the part of the Mulroney government. Public money spent on scientists is every bit as important as money spent on any other part of our health care system.”

At the Bromine Forum, the Precautionary Principle is, not surprisingly, contrasted against fire prevention. When asked how he feels about living in a world bathed in pbdes, O’Toole answers without a pause: “There’s a balance between risk and benefit for anyone who lives in a home with a fire retardant. Which is a lot of people.” He’s right. And now, nearly three decades after they first became exposed to pbde contamination, Canadians are discovering the trade-off may have come at a huge cost to their health.

Paul Webster
Paul Webster has reported from Russia on nuclear-weapons issues.