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Brominated Flame Retardants

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The Ecology Center actively advocates for cleaner and safer consumer products. We led a successful campaign to ban two kind of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) - Penta-BDE and Octa-BDE, compounds commonly used as flame retardants in a wide variety of consumer products. In January 2005, Governor Granholm signed the ban into law. The Ecology Center and the Michigan Network for Children's Environmental Health continue to fight for the ban on another form of PBDE called deca-BDE.

Brominated Flame Retardants/Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers

Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are used in products to reduce their flammability. Common sources of BFRs are furniture, textiles and electronic equipment — including television sets, automobiles, and computers.

Designed to keep people safe, BFRs unfortunately also cause harm. Even at low levels, BFRs can impair memory, attention, learning and behavior in laboratory animals. Exposure at critical developmental periods can impair sensory and motor skills, and hearing in fetuses. Furthermore, some BFRs are both persistent and bioaccumulative in the environment and in people.

The most commonly used class of brominated flame retardants are polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). PBDEs are often mixed directly into the foam or plastic product mixture. In contrast to other flame retardants, which are often chemically bonded to the product, this process makes it easier for the compounds to leach into the environment and cause contamination. Numerous reports link PBDEs to thyroid hormone disruption, learning and memory impairment, hearing problems, delayed onset of puberty, birth defects and cancer.

Recent studies have shown that the breast milk of United States women was contaminated with high levels of PBDEs. The average U.S. PBDE levels were 75 times the European average. Researchers now believe that US populations (particularly infants) are exposed to much higher PBDE levels than their European peers. This may be due in part to the regulation and phasing out of several commonly used BFRs in Europe.

There are three main classes of PBDEs, Penta, Octa, and Deca, distinguished by the number of bromine atoms attached to the molecule — five, eight, and ten respectively. Deca-BDEs are the most widely used, comprising over 80% of the PBDE market, followed by Penta and Octa.

The Ecology Center led a successful campaign to ban Penta and Octa PBDEs in Michigan. Governor Granholm signed the bills into law in January 2005. Sections of the new laws were dedicated to the memory of Mary Beth Doyle, a leading advocate of the flames retardant ban, who died in a vehicle accident in November 2004.