News Brief

Scientists Speak Out Against Halogenated Flame Retardants

November 9, 2010

A statement published online by Environmental Health Perspectives

and signed by 145 scientists worldwide argues that we should stop using brominated and chlorinated flame retardants (BFRs and CFRs, respectively), which the scientists consider to be persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. The San Antonio Statement, as the piece is called, also calls for an end to a pattern of substitution in which one harmful chemical is replaced with an alternative of unknown toxicity.

In an editorial accompanying the statement, Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institutes of Health and Human Services, and Åke Bergman, professor of environmental chemistry at Stockholm University, write that the San Antonio Statement is primarily a call to end a pattern of “unfortunate substitution.” They write, “Since the 1970s, BFRs and CFRs have commonly served as substitutes for other BFRs and CFRs, even though there have been early warnings and periodic reminders about the problematic properties of these chemicals.”

They refer to the case of polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) flame retardants, which were accidentally mixed with livestock feed in Michigan in the 1970s; the government destroyed thousands of animals and banned PBBs. Manufacturers switched to a chemically very similar class of compounds, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), that weren’t known to be toxic. But concerns about PBDEs have emerged as these chemicals have been found in increasing amounts in human breast milk and the evidence of negative human health effects grows (see “Flame Retardants Under Fire,” EBN June 2004).

In their statement, the scientists call for increased transparency about human health and environmental impacts of BFRs and CFRs, and demand further testing of alternative chemicals to ensure safety. They also call for alternatives to flame retardants in general. “The process of identifying alternatives to flame retardants should include not only alternative chemicals but also innovative changes in the design of products, industrial processes, and other practices that do not require the use of any flame retardant,” the statement says.

 

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