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California Legislature Passes Bill Banning PBDEs

SACRAMENTO, CA -- August 1, 2003 -- Two toxic polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) compounds commonly used in fire retardants would be phased out by 2008 under legislation passed by the California legislature. The bill, AB 302, has been sent to Governor Gray Davis for his consideration.

Specifically, any product containing more than than 1/10 of 1% pentaBDE or octaBDE (two common forms of PBDEs), may not be distributed or manufactured in California after 2007. These PBDEs have been routinely used in the plastic housing of computers and circuit boards, and in the foam and textiles used in furniture. They are already banned in Europe, but are not regulated under federal law in the United States. If AB 302 becomes law, California will be the first state to ban some forms of PBDE.

PBDEs Can Cause Health Problems

PBDEs may cause serious nervous system and liver problems, and disrupt thyroid hormones (Environmental Science and Technology, Science News, December 7, 2001). They also accumulate in women's breast tissue and mother's milk and may be passed on to nursing babies. One study shows that human fetuses can be exposed to relatively high levels of PBDE through their mothers (Environ Health Perspect. 2003 Jul; 111 (9): 1249-52). Exposure to PBDE may also come from dust from PBDE-laden furniture, from diet, or from other sources (Environmental Science and Technology, Science News, April 10, 2003). However, the exact pathways of PBDE uptake are not known.

We do know that PBDEs persist in the environment and are building up rapidly in populations. For example, levels in Swedish breast milk samples increased dramatically from 1972 to 1997 (Chemosphere. 2000 May-Jun; 40 (9-11): 1111-23). But PBDE exposure is most common among women in North America, a region that uses about half of the PBDE produced worldwide, or at least 73 million pounds of the substance per year (Toxic Fire Retardants Building Up in San Francisco Bay Fish, The Next PCB?). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the body burden of PBDE in North American women is about 40 times greater than that of women in Sweden (Environmental Science and Technology, Science News, December 7, 2001). A recent study of California women by the California Environmental Protection Agency also shows a PBDE concentration that is 3 to 10 times higher than that found in European women (Environ Health Perspect. 2003 Jul;111(9):1175-9).

High Level of PBDEs in SF Bay Area Fish

The study of PBDE in California women was published about the same time as a report by the Environmental Working Group about PBDE in San Francisco Bay. A California state toxic lab analyzed six species of Bay fish and detected PBDEs in every fish sample. The tests compared fish caught by local anglers with archived samples caught in 1997. PBDE levels had more than doubled in halibut and more than tripled in striped bass during this period. As large species that are high on the food chain, striped bass and halibut provide good indicators of overall toxic contamination in the Bay, according to the Environmental Working Group report. The organization concluded that PBDE is increasing in the local environment and poses a risk to Bay Area residents.

"We don't have to poison the Bay or our bodies for fire safety," said Sonya Lunder, the principal author of the study (EWG News Release, July 10, 2003). "Computers and other products can be made flame-resistant by using different materials or better design, instead of adding toxic chemicals that are a public health timebomb."

Further Work on the PBDE Issue

The Environmental Working Group supports AB 302, but considers the bill to be only a first step in solving the PBDE problem. It points out that although the California bill bans pentaBDE and octaBDE, it does not ban decaBDE, a hazardous form of PBDE that is commonly used in electronics. AB 302 also fails to require manufacturers to label PBDE-containing products. Such labeling would give consumers a choice and could encourage manufacturers to use better product designs or new fire retardants. The group also objects to giving PBDE manufacturers until 2008 to stop using the substance -- a time period during which large amounts of PBDE can accumulate in the environment. It makes these suggestions:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency should ban all PBDEs as quickly as possible. In the interim, all PBDE-containing products should be labeled.
  • All replacement fire retardants must be adequately tested to ensure that they are not persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic. Manufacturers should be encouraged to modify product design to decrease the need for chemical fire retardants.
  • A nationwide biomonitoring program should be established to identify chemicals that are accumulating in our bodies and in the environment, and to determine whether levels are increasing or decreasing.

On the other side of the issue, various bromine and PBDE manufacturers have formed the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum for the alleged purpose of educating the public about bromine compounds. The major companies in this group are Great Lakes Chemical Corp. of West Lafayette, Indiana, Albemarle Corp. of Richmond, Virginia, and Dead Sea Bromine Group in Israel. They continue to lobby against PBDE regulations and restrictions.

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