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E-M:/ New Report: Common Flame Retardants Threaten Health

For Immediate Release:                                            For More Information Contact:

February 18, 2004                                                       Kate Madigan, PIRGIM (517) 485-5029

                                                                                    Jim Sygo, Deputy Director, MDEQ (517) 241-7394


Widely Used Flame Retardants Break Down into Banned Chemicals, Threaten Health


[Lansing, Michigan] – A commonly used flame retardant found at alarmingly high levels in the Great Lakes region threatens health and illustrates the need to reform U.S. toxic chemical policy, according to a new report released today by PIRGIM.  In lab tests, scientists have linked decabrominated diphenyl ether (Deca)—a chemical closely related to two flame retardants recently banned in California—to health effects including neurological damage or permanent memory loss, and have detected the chemical in the breast milk of American women at higher levels than anywhere else in the world.


“The latest science clearly points to the need for an elimination of Deca and other toxic flame retardants,” reports PIRGIM Environmental Advocate Kate Madigan.  “The U.S. should reassess its regulation of toxic chemicals to ensure that this kind of widespread exposure does not happen in the future.”


To drive federal action, Madigan said, Michigan should renew the leadership it exhibited under former Governor William Milliken when he took aggressive action to reduce PCBs in the environment and to reduce mercury pollution in the 1970s, helping set a national standard. She said Governor Jennifer Granholm should take executive steps to eliminate the release of Deca and related compounds in Michigan, and the Legislature should enact a phase-out on the compounds proposed in legislation sponsored by State Rep. Chris Kolb (D-Ann Arbor).


Toxic flame-retardants like Deca are widely used in a variety of common consumer products, including in electronics and electrical equipment, as well as in upholstery and other textiles.  North American industry used more than 49 million pounds in 2001 – about half the world market. 


Deca is one type of flame retardant called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs.)  Deca and other toxic flame retardants escape from consumer products into air and water and have been found in household dust, river sediment, and in the food supply.  The chemicals accumulate in the human body, pass from a mother to a developing fetus, and have been found in human breast milk. Studies have found PBDEs in some of the highest levels in the breast milk of women in the Great Lakes region. 


“It is appalling that PBDE levels are on the rise in women’s breast milk,” commented Tracey Easthope, MPH of the Ecology Center. “Safe alternatives to toxic flame retardants are readily available. There is no reason to continue to release PBDEs into the environment and put our children’s development at risk.”


Deca breaks down under sunlight and during metabolic processes into the types of toxic flame-retardants, pentabrominated (Penta) and octabrominated (Octa) diphenyl ethers, recently banned in California and Europe.   The major chemical manufacturer of Penta and Octa compounds has agreed to voluntarily phase out all their production to avoid human health consequences nationwide, and several consumer goods companies have phased out the use of all PBDEs in their products.


Steps also are being taken to eliminate PBDEs in Michigan. Representative Chris Kolb (D-Ann Arbor) has introduced legislation to ban all PBDEs in Michigan by 2007. Additionally, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) is currently drafting a white paper to look at the risks posed by toxic flame retardants, and recommendations for Michigan. 


“Scientific research is emerging that shows PBDEs can be harmful to human health,” said state Representative Chris Kolb. “We have a responsibility to protect Michigan citizens and our Great Lakes from these toxic flame retardants, and there is no reason to delay.”


The main U.S. law for chemicals regulation is the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  Under TSCA, the EPA has the authority to ban chemicals, but must take on such a great burden for action they have not banned a chemical since PCBs were banned in 1976.  As a result, chemicals like Deca can be on the market for decades without action, even as evidence of their harm mounts. 


“The U.S. government must fix the way it regulates toxic chemicals,” said Dave Dempsey of the Michigan Environmental Council.  “Harmful chemicals shouldn’t come onto the market in the first place. Michigan has a special reason to act in response to these findings. We are at the center of the Great Lakes Basin and our environmental history demonstrates that the Lakes – and our citizens – are especially vulnerable to these long-lasting, toxic compounds. ”


Industry’s argument against regulation has centered on the belief that Deca molecules were too big to be absorbed by people’s bodies.  California’s ban did not include Deca because the science was incomplete.  However, several recent groundbreaking studies summarized in PIRGIM’s report found Deca in human blood and breast milk in the bodies of electronics workers as well as in people who had not been exposed in the workplace.


PIRGIM is calling on Congress and state leaders to phase out Deca and all other brominated flame retardants.  In addition, PIRGIM advocates for the reform of toxic chemical regulation and efforts to protect human health through extensive pre-market health effects testing and reductions in the use of hazardous chemicals.






Kate Madigan

PIRGIM Environmental Advocate

1310 Turner Street, Suite B

Lansing, MI 48906

Tel: 517-485-5029