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Toxic flame retardant to be phased out

In a deal with federal regulators, U.S. manufacturers will end all use of the chemical known as deca by 2013. It is commonly used in TV sets and other electronic equipment, among other products.

December 20, 2009|By Bettina Boxall

The U.S. manufacturers of a toxic flame retardant commonly used in television sets have agreed to phase out production under a deal with federal regulators.

The retardant, known as deca, is one of a class of chemical compounds that have been found in California residents at the highest levels in the country, a consequence of widespread exposure linked to the state's strict flammability standards for furniture.

Deca is a polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), a group of flame-retardant chemicals used in the manufacture of electronic equipment, furniture cushions, upholstery textiles, carpet backings, mattresses, cars, buses, aircraft and construction materials.

A California ban on products containing two other PBDEs, penta and octa, took effect in 2008. Even though the deca phaseout does not ban the importation of products with the compound, activists said the move is nonetheless significant

"This is the beginning of the end for brominated flame retardants," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president for policy for the Environmental Working Group. "It sends a signal."

Steve Owens, an assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement accompanying last week's announcement that "studies have shown that DecaBDE persists in the environment, potentially causes cancer and may impact brain function.

"DecaBDE also can degrade to more toxic chemicals that are frequently found in the environment and are hazardous to wildlife."

Deca is used worldwide, primarily in plastic for the backs of television sets.

First detected in the environment in 1979, PBDE levels have been climbing. The compounds have been found in human tissue, breast milk, fish, birds, marine mammals, polar bears, house dust, indoor air, supermarket foods and San Francisco Bay Area sewage.

In a study released last year, researchers found that Californians had twice as much of the flame-retardant chemical in their blood and as much as 10 times more of it in their homes than elsewhere in the country.

Levels in California children were higher than those measured in their mothers.

The state's flammability standards for furniture are the toughest in the nation.

Exactly how the retardants get into the environment is uncertain, but pathways probably include releases from product manufacturing, along with wear and tear on furniture and electronics.

John Gustavsen, a spokesman for Chemtura Corp., said his company agreed to the phaseout because it provided a three-year window to develop alternative products.

"There have been increasing regulatory restrictions on deca globally and many would result in a ban," he said.

Under the EPA agreement, Chemtura and Albemarle Corp., deca's two U.S. producers, and ICL Industrial Products Inc., the largest U.S. importer, will end all use of the chemical by late 2013.

In a statement, Albemarle described deca as safe and "one of the most efficacious flame retardants in the world," but said the company had developed a "recyclable and an eco-friendly alternative."

PBDEs are just one group of flame-retardant chemicals used in the United States. Other types also have been found in the environment.

And Wiles, of the Environmental Working Group, said new PBDE substitutes are potentially worrisome too.

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

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