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According to EPA scientists Tom McDonald and Kim Hooper, PBDE (a popular flame-retardant chemical) could be the PCB of the future.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) are organobromine compounds that are used as flame retardants. Materials much reach higher temperatures to burst into flames when PDBEs are used. As with other brominated flame retardants, PBDEs are frequently used in manufacturing. Products such as televisions, computers, furniture, cars, trucks, plastics, and textiles often have PBDE compounds. Even some manufacturers of polyurethane foam mattresses and furniture sometimes use PBDEs. Although there are alternatives, PDBEs are cheap and effective. Hence, some companies continue to use PDBEs in manufactured goods.
PBDEs are somewhat similar to PCBs and other polyhalogenated compounds that have two halogenated aromatic rings. In 1979 the US Congress banned the use of PCBs in manufacturing. The Stockholm Convention followed suit many years later, in 2001. PCB was mostly used in transformers, capacitors, and coolants.
It is believed that PBDEs at high enough levels are mutagenic neurotoxins that can hinder brain function and possibly cause cancer long term (carcinogenic). While levels in our environment are still relatively low, the presence of these chemicals is increasing exponentially. As materials with these chemicals break down or are incinerated, the chemicals escape into the atmosphere and eventually contaminate our water and food supply.
Some studies suggest PDBEs are a growing threat to our health and should be banned. PBDEs are easily absorbed through our skin; hence, workers like the one in the picture above are at high risk for accumulating high levels of PDBEs.
Once in the environment, PDBEs accumulate in animal fat, and as animals higher on the food chain eat others, higher toxicity levels build up. Levels in humans have been doubling every two to five years. As evidence of the growing threat, a few studies have found alarming levels of PBDEs in mothers breast milk (see references).
The massive increase in PDBE levels is alarming. Some American and European businesses began voluntarily phasing out the use of PBDEs during the early 1990s. There are alternatives to PBDEs and environmentally conscious companies such as Volvo, IBM and IKEA have phased out the use of polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Based on several studies, the state Departments of Ecology and Health is now leading the charge on banning PBDEs.
Legislation was passed in California, which specified that after January 1, 2008, manufacturing, processing, or distributing in commerce a product containing more than 1/10 of 1% pentaBDE or octaBDE, by mass is prohibited. The states of Massachusetts, Michigan, and New York have all taken steps toward banning PDBEs as well.
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