Fire Proof?

The federal government wants to ban a controversial flame retardant. What does it mean for you?

The government of Canada is proposing to ban a controversial flame retardant used in textiles, furniture and electronics, known as deca-polybrominated diphenyl ether (deca PBDE), or simply “deca,” joining the European Union in removing it from the marketplace.

The move comes after years of lobbying by Canadians concerned by the chemical’s accumulation in wildlife and in people (Canadians carry the highest level of PBDEs in their blood and breast milk, second only to Americans), and by scientific studies—including a new one published last month by Swedish researchers—that find it to be toxic to the nervous systems and thyroid glands of mice. Studies on potential health effects of PBDEs in humans are scarce, but there is concern, for children in particular, due to its ability to cause hyperactivity and spontaneous behaviour (often described as “ADHD-like” symptoms) in lab animals.

In fact, the federal government banned deca’s manufacture in Canada in July 2008 and is now moving to ban the chemical’s import in electronics as well. “We see this as a victory,” says Dr. Elaine MacDonald, senior scientist with Ecojustice (formerly the Sierra Legal Defence Fund). “This is a great step forward.”

Where it lurks

About 80 percent of deca used in Canada, she notes, is in the hard plastic casing in consumer electronics such as televisions and computers (where it is added to prevent them catching fire from overheating or during house fires). But because Canada has no system in place to test all imports for flame retardants, there is still no guarantee that your new television or carpet will be deca-free once the import ban is in place. “You may have to just do your own research on specific brands online,” she says.

In fact, some major brands have already pledged to never use deca, such as Apple and Ikea. But a report from Greenpeace last month found that other electronics companies, such as Hewlett Packard and Dell, still use brominated flame retardants, despite pledges to phase them out.

Even so, deca is being phased out, in this country at least. A few U.S. states have also banned deca, but “Canada is way ahead of the U.S. on this. We are lagging behind [here] in America,” says Dr. Arlene Blum, Director of the Green Science Policy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, who first identified carcinogenic brominated flame retardants called “tris” in the 1970s.

New retardants, same problems?

But while deca is on its way out, other new kinds of brominated flame retardants are being introduced to replace them, such as decabromodiphenyl ethane and brominated phthalates (a name that should ring alarm bells). Phthalates, plasticizers used to soften polymer plastics, are also being targeted for bans for their toxicity to the hormonal system.

“There is now a huge laundry list of new brominated flame retardants, and there are so few toxicology studies done on these chemicals before their approval, its just crazy,” says Dr. Miriam Diamond, a chemist at the University of Toronto who studies flame retardants and other toxic chemicals in household dust and outdoor air pollution, who published a new study last month looking at how they get into household dust. “Environmental chemists are always playing catch up,” identifying the chemicals in the environment and then looking to see what effects they could have on the wildlife and people they accumulate in.

In fact, deca was introduced as what was thought to be a “safe” alternative to two other PBDEs (called penta and octa), which themselves were used as “safe” alternatives to other more toxic flame retardants. Now, new chemicals are being introduced every year to replace deca, and some might prove to be dangerous—decabromodiphenyl ethane has already been found in red pandas in China and seagulls in North America.

All of this begs the question, is it even be possible to design flame retardants that are safe? “I don’t know of any brominated flame retardants that turned out to be safe,” says Dr Blum. "At the end of the day, in many cases the chemicals just aren’t necessary. We now have fire-safe candles and cigarettes that extinguish themselves. It’s much more effective to deal with the sources of ignition than to put fire retardants in everything.”