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Do flame-retardants save lives or endanger children?

By Sharon Collins
CNN Headline News

television set
PBDEs have been used in flame-retardants since the 1960s and are found in common household items such as television sets.

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(CNN) -- PBDE, a popular flame-retardant chemical, could be the PCB of the future, according to EPA scientists Tom McDonald and Kim Hooper.

A study in May 2000 by McDonald and Hooper showed that PBDEs are passed to children from adults through the placenta and breast milk.

"This is primarily a children's issue," said McDonald. "Our primary health concern is that it appears that the PBDEs harm the developing brain. ... It causes reductions in their ability to learn, their ability to remember, increased hyperactivity and even hearing loss."

PBDEs have been used in flame-retardants since the 1960s. They are found in common household items, such as electrical appliances, television sets and computer circuit boards, and building materials. PBDEs are also found in the upholstery used in homes, businesses and vehicles from cars to airplanes, and in rugs and draperies.

They are structurally very similar to PCBs, which were used in electrical insulation and have been banned since 1979. And like PCBs, they persist in the environment for decades.

Polyurethane foam and contaminated fish are thought to be the primary transmitters of PBDEs to humans. As the polyurethane foam in old furniture breaks down or is incinerated, PBDEs are released into the air. Eventually these chemicals get into waterways and contaminate fish.

Once in the environment, PBDEs accumulate in the fat of animals. As one animal eats another, the PBDEs increase in concentration up the food chain. Since humans are at the top of the food chain, they have some of the highest concentrations. Studies have shown that concentrations in Americans are doubling every two to five years. It is this geometric increase in concentration that has scientists worried.

As early as the mid-1990s, European companies started voluntarily phasing out the production of PBDEs. The European Union banned some PBDEs earlier this year. PBDE levels are dropping in European countries where use has been discontinued.

In the United States, where there is no ban, levels are still on the rise. "Now in the United States the levels in our bodies are the highest in the world," said McDonald.

At the same time, the American Chemistry Council's Brominated Flame Retardant Industry Panel prepared a risk assessment of a flame retardant using a PBDE. The panel consists of three chemical companies, including the Albermarle Corp. and the Great Lakes Chemical Co., the only two companies in the United States manufacturing flame-retardants containing PBDEs. The assessment concluded that the PBDE known as deca-BDE "is a large, poorly absorbed molecule that exhibits little toxicity, does not harm development or reproduction, and is not mutagenic."

There are alternatives to PBDE use. "There are many proactive companies such as the computer maker IBM, the furniture maker Ikea, the car maker Volvo, which all make products that meet California's strict flame-retardant standards but still do not use the PBDEs," said McDonald. But it is not clear if or when PBDEs will be banned in the U.S., since, unlike in Europe, a chemical cannot be banned until there is proof of harm or risk.

Marty Maxwell contributed to this article.


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