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Effort will Target Harmful Fire Retardant

by Lisa Stiffler
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - January 29, 2004

Gov. Locke stops short of a ban on the 'son of PCBs'

OLYMPIA -- A fire retardant that has been showing up in frightening levels in Washington eagle eggs and fish -- even the breast milk of Northwest women -- is the new target of a state program devoted to reducing toxic chemicals in the environment.

Gov. Gary Locke signed an executive order yesterday reviving an Ecology Department program that had its budget gutted last year, announcing that it will address the growing threat of polybrominated biphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

California and European Union leaders already have passed laws to ban the most dangerous types of the widely used fire retardants -- added to electronic devices, computers, foam cushions in furniture and cars, carpet padding and fabrics.

Lawmakers in Maine are considering a ban, and momentum is building for a federal prohibition.

"This chemical is rapidly increasing in our environment," said Locke, who stopped short of calling for a similar ban here. "We need to do more. We need to do it faster."

PBDEs are suspected of causing developmental defects in the brain of fetuses and children, leading to reduced intelligence and motor skills. Because they are added to most products, and not chemically bound to them, PBDEs can leach into the environment. They can be released when foams break down and have been found in dust, researchers have found.

The flame retardants have been called the "son of PCBs" because their chemical structure is similar to polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs, the cancer-causing chemicals used for decades to insulate electrical equipment, were banned in 1977, but they were in so many products and are so long-lasting that they continue to plague the food chain. Both compounds accumulate in the fatty tissues of people and animals.

Will PBDEs be the next great menace?

"Quite frankly, the levels that they are finding in the environment are alarming," said Rob Duff, acting director of the state Health Department's Office of Environmental Health Assessment.

Duff cited recent studies measuring PBDEs at levels 10 to 100 times higher in American women than in their European counterparts, and said health concerns need to be addressed here immediately. "Why would you want to wait around?"

"Action is needed," agreed Ivy Sager-Rosenthal of the Washington Public Interest Research Group. "The important step right now is that we start taking a look" at where PBDEs are in the environment and where they are coming from.

Locke's executive order instructed Ecology to develop an "action plan" for dealing with the PBDE problem within a year. The agency will try to figure out the sources of the compounds and how they move through the environment, then assess human health impacts and recommend ways to reduce exposure.

The governor's order doesn't give Ecology the money it needs to get the job done. Locke and legislators promised yesterday to fight to include $686,000 for the program in this year's budget.

Business groups were pleased that Locke's strategy was to assess the magnitude of PBDE contamination here rather than rush into a ban.

Locke's action "caught us off-guard," said Grant Nelson, who works on environmental policy for the Association of Washington Business. "AWB members really prefer voluntary approaches."

Some major manufacturers have reduced or eliminated use of the fire retardant, including Ikea, Intel and Sony, choosing less dangerous alternatives. Other products are being made from less flammable materials or designed to be less fire-prone.

The Boeing Co. is among the local manufacturers looking for safer alternatives.

The trick for Boeing is finding something that works chemically with the resins and plastics used in airplane production, said Billy Glover, the company's director of environmental performance and strategy in Everett.

"It's not one of our more expensive endeavors," Glover said. "It takes concentrated effort, though."

In 2001, Washington became the first state in the nation to launch a program to reduce long-lasting contaminants that build up in living organisms. The first toxin tackled by the Ecology program was mercury. PBDEs will be the second -- if funding is restored.

"Right now, today, we don't have the money to do this," said Ecology spokeswoman Sheryl Hutchison.

If lawmakers don't come through with the needed money, Locke said, he might jump-start the program with $100,000 from his emergency fund.

Democrats in the House will push to include the funding in their budget, said Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, who serves on the Appropriations Committee.

"Prevention of these chemicals from entering the environment is going to be more cost-effective than cleaning them up after," she said. "It makes good public health sense and good fiscal sense to do these programs."

PBDEs came into heavy use in the late-'70s. Twenty years later, European countries reduced their use of the flame retardant, with good results. Tests of breast milk in Swedish women showed that PBDE levels have been declining steadily.

"It's not a question of, do we stop breast-feeding?" said Yana Kucher, an environmental health advocate for Environment California, a non-profit group. "It's how do we get these chemicals out?"

In Washington, there has been a lot of concern over mercury and PCB contamination in salmon and other fish. PBDEs also have been measured at high levels.

Recent tests by Ecology researchers have found the chemicals at 1.3 parts per million in mountain whitefish from the urbanized Spokane River. These problems highlight the need to change policies to prevent long-lasting, toxic chemicals from being used in the first place, Kucher said.

"It is pretty scary to think our grandchildren will be suffering from our actions," she said.

Problem Fire Retardant
Widely used fire-retardant chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, have been found in the breast milk of American women, raising health concerns.

Uses -- PBDEs are used in furniture cushions, car seats, fabrics, computers, stereos and other products.

Human exposure -- Scientists are still figuring this out, but the most likely exposure is through dust from the products or by consuming contaminated food.

Health effects -- High levels of PBDEs have been shown to cause cognitive impairment, memory loss and even brain damage in lab animals.

Phaseouts -- Some American manufacturers are voluntarily phasing out use of the two most dangerous types of PBDEs -- penta and octa -- by 2005; European Union ban takes effect this year, California's in 2008.

Related Sites:
Source: Extension Toxicology Network
Related Pages:
Pesticides Disrupt How Salmon Smell by Lisa Stiffler, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 8/1/00

Lisa Stiffler
Effort will Target Harmful Fire Retardant
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 29, 2004

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