Fireproofing chemical may face backlash after phase-out
The Associated Press
OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington state has taken the lead on phasing out a controversial fireproofing chemical that environmentalists say is a harmful toxin accumulating in people and waterways, and officials here hope other states quickly follow suit.
This past week, the state was the first in the nation to begin phasing out the use of decaBDE, the chemical used in televisions, computers and upholstered furniture.
Ten other states introduced measures addressing deca this year, though some only dealt with studies of the chemical. While several have languished in committee, measures phasing out the chemical are still alive in California, Illinois, Maine and Michigan, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C
"Being the first to do anything is the hardest," said Jay Manning, director of the Washington state Department of Ecology. "It would have been a lot easier for us to pass this bill if we could have pointed to California or Maine. Now they're going to be able to point to Washington and say, 'Hey, look, they've done this.'
The measure that was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Chris Gregoire prohibits the manufacture, sale or distribution of most items containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers, commonly known as PBDEs, as long as a safer alternative exists.
The measure before the Legislature this year focused on deca, which has been detected in people, salmon, seals and orcas.
Opponents in the chemical industry have lobbied hard against the measure, taking out full-page ads in newspapers.
"Deca is the most effective flame retardant, the easiest to use and it's cost-efficient," said John Kyte, North American program director for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, an international industry group. "Fundamentally, we disagree with the premise that deca is a product that ought to be banned."
Two forms of PBDEs, penta and octa, are no longer produced in this country because the Indiana company that produced the chemicals voluntarily stopped production in 2004 over concerns about the chemicals being detected in people and wildlife.
Other states have passed bans on penta and octa, but Washington — while banning penta and octa as well — is the first to act on deca.
Deca's largest use is in the black plastic casings of TVs. Some companies, like Dell, Canon and Sony, have already phased out PBDEs. Furniture manufacturers such as IKEA have also stopped using parts that have PBDEs.
"They prove that reducing highly toxic chemicals is actually a good business decision as well," said Clifford Traisman, a lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Environmental Council.
On its Web site, the federal Environmental Protection agency discusses the "unintended consequences" of PBDEs, which are used to slow ignition and rate of fire growth.
"There is growing evidence that PBDEs persist in the environment and accumulate in living organisms, as well as toxicological testing that indicates these chemicals may cause liver toxicity, thyroid toxicity, and neurodevelopmental toxicity," the Web site reads.
Under the measure in Washington state, mattresses with deca would be banned after Jan. 1, 2008, because deca alternatives already exist for mattresses.
The chemical would be prohibited in residential upholstered furniture and in televisions or computers with electronic enclosures after Jan. 1, 2011, assuming a safer alternative has been found.
There would be several exemptions, including used cars made before Jan. 1, 2008, safety systems required by the Federal Aviation Administration, and medical devices.
While opponents argue the numerous exemptions make the law meaningless, state officials disagree.
"We wanted to get at the bulk of the deca exposure in the home," said Ecology spokesman Ted Sturdevant. "That's why we took a focused approach to this from the start. The primary concern has always been about kids."
Richard Wiles, the executive director of the Environmental Working Group, said the new law in Washington state "sends a strong signal that deca is on the way out."
He said that he hoped that the other states follow suit, leading to a national ban.
Under the new law, the Ecology and Health departments would have to review alternatives to deca-PBDE products, consulting with a fire safety committee that would include the state's director of fire protection and the executive director of the Washington Fire Chiefs. By Dec. 15, 2008, the two agencies would have to report to the Legislature on the availability of alternatives.
In prior years, the firefighters opposed the bill over concerns that safer alternatives weren't available, said Mike Brown, executive director of the Washington Fire Chiefs.
Brown said firefighters worry about the toxins they're exposed to while fighting fires, but want assurance that alternative retardants will be good enough.
"Our expertise is in fire retardants, and we're going to make sure the fire retardant element of this new product is good," he said.
But the extra step gives Wiles, of the Environmental Working Group, pause.
"It's potentially an out for the industry," Wiles said. "It gives them leverage that we want to be very careful with."
Kyte, from the industry group, agreed that the approval process may or may not lead to a ban on deca.
"If a fair, open and transparent process is conducted, we're confident that deca will be found to be safe for continued use," he said.
"The marketplace has already proven there are safer alternatives," Traisman said.
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