Following the lead of European nations, Washington state will ban the use of toxic flame retardants in TVs, computers and other household products by 2011.
State officials say alternatives have become available to flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. Several other chemical flame retardants meet Washington’s standards for reducing flammability but are safer for human health, according to State Fire Marshal Mike Matlick.
Found in the plastics and foam used in electronics and upholstered furniture, PBDEs have been linked to damage in the brain development of laboratory animals, affecting behavior, learning and memory.
“We know that PBDEs are also present in people,” said Carol Kraege, the Department of Ecology’s toxics policy coordinator. “Eighty percent of the exposure to these chemicals appears to occur within the home.”
Residents of North America have the highest levels of PBDEs in the world, according to Ecology’s research. The compounds are also pervasive in the environment, where they accumulate in animal fat, moving through the food chain.
PBDEs are “found everywhere,” said Kraege, including remote populations of grizzly and polar bears and the eggs of peregrine falcons.
High levels of PBDEs were also detected in the Spokane River. During a 2005 to 2006 study, fish in the river had levels 25 times higher on average than those found in Lake Washington, which was the next-highest site sampled.
The cause of Spokane River’s record levels of PBDEs remains a mystery. State officials aren’t aware of any large, local manufacturers that use PBDEs, but they may get some answers through a $980,000 research effort to determine how industrial pollutants enter the river. Study results are expected later this year.
PBDEs have been around since the early 1970s. Three different flame retardants actually fall under the compound’s heading. In 2004, U.S. manufacturers voluntarily stopped making two of the compounds, Penta-BDE and Octa-BDE.
But Deca-BDE remains in production. It’s added to the plastic that encloses televisions, which accounts for most of Deca-BDE’s use in the United States, according to Ecology.
In July, the European Union banned the sale of electronics that contain Deca-BDE.
If manufacturers are making Deca-BDE-free products for sale in the European market, they should be able to phase out its use for items sold in Washington state as well, Ecology officials said.