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Assembly Moves to Ban Toxic Flame Retardants

The chemicals, called PBDEs, prevent fires but are believed harmful to developing brains. The bill, which drew no GOP votes, goes to the Senate.

May 28, 2003|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

The California Assembly on Tuesday passed a bill that would ban use of toxic flame retardants that are building up in the bodies of people and wildlife around the world.

Scientists are alarmed by the compounds because concentrations in American women and their babies are approaching levels that scientists believe can harm the developing brains of newborns and young children.

The European Union has already banned the two types of flame retardants targeted in the bill, but their use is unregulated in the United States.

If enacted, the the law would make California the first state to regulate use of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. The bill now goes to the Senate, which will begin debate this summer.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Greg Aghazarian -- An article in Wednesday's California section about Assembly passage of a bill that would ban the use of toxic flame retardants misidentified Republican Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian as representing Palm Desert. Aghazarian is the assemblyman from Stockton.

PBDEs were designed to protect the public from fires by suppressing the flammability of plastics and polyurethane foam in upholstery, building materials and electronic equipment, including TVs and computers.

The Assembly bill would ban the manufacture and use of two types of PBDEs beginning in 2008. Known as penta and octa PBDEs, they are applied mostly to upholstered furniture and building materials.

"This is an incredibly significant step. If California does it, it's only a matter of time now before the rest of the country catches on," said Dan Jacobson of the environmental group Environment California.

Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian (R-Palm Desert) said the restrictions are premature, saying it's not "a sky-is-falling situation."

"Let's not jump the gun," he said. "If we jump the gun, we are taking off the market the most successful [flame] retardant ... known to man."

But other Assembly members said many companies already are phasing out PBDEs. For example, IKEA has a policy of selling only PBDE-free furniture, and IBM, Apple and other major electronics manufacturers are phasing out the chemicals.

If it were a choice between people dying in fires and children's health, "that would be a very hard choice to make," said Assemblywoman Wilma Chan (D-Alameda), the bill's author. But, she said, "there are alternatives to these chemicals. "

PBDEs pass through a mother's womb and are readily absorbed by a fetus. Scientists have determined that a single dose of PBDEs given to newborn mice and rats disrupts their developing brains, causing measurable changes in learning ability, memory, behavior and hearing.

PBDEs alter brains when exposure comes during a critical phase of growth, toxicologists say. That period lasts from the third trimester of pregnancy to a child's second birthday.

Studies have also shown the compounds are as potent and long-lasting as DDT and PCBs. Although those two compounds were banned in the U.S. three decades ago, residues are still widely found.

Chan chided conservative members of the Assembly for supporting protection of fetuses in the form of anti-abortion legislation but not backing protection from industrial contaminants. "For our unborn children, we do not want this chemical going through mothers' placentas," she said.

No Republicans voted in favor of the bill, which passed 45 to 29 after a 20-minute debate. Some said they wanted more proof that the risks from the flame retardants outweigh the benefits.

Before the debate, Chan won the support of many legislators and businesses by removing restrictions on the PBDE compound used in electronics and delaying the ban by two years. On Tuesday, she removed provisions that would have required warning labels on products in 2005.

The amounts found in people and wildlife throughout North America are doubling every two to five years, a growth rate unprecedented for any chemical in half a century, scientists say. Americans carry on average 10 to 70 times more PBDEs in their breast milk, tissues and blood than Europeans.

Most likely, PBDEs are being ingested from consuming fish and inhaling particles and gases given off by furniture in homes and offices.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is conducting a risk assessment of PBDEs, has no current plans to regulate them. Industries used 135 million pounds of PBDEs in 2001, half of them in the U.S. and Canada.

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Times staff writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.

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