New generation of brominated flame retardants cause concern

More needs to be known about the new generation of brominated flame retardants, which are increasing in use, in order to asses their risks to the environment, according to a new report by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Brominated flame retardants, used in plastics, rubber, textiles and other materials to prevent fires, can cause environmental problems of the same kind and extent as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), according to the Swedish EPA. However, according to the Agency, not enough is known about the effects of these chemicals, particularly with regards to the new generation of brominated flame retardants, such as hexabromo cyclododecane, used in foams, expanded polystyreme, insulation blocks and car upholstery, Niklas Johansson of the Swedish EPA explained to edie.

“Nor do we know what will happen with the highly brominated compounds,” points out Johansson. “At present, they are less likely to be taken up by living organism[s] than the lower-brominated compounds. But what will happen if they degrade?”

In 1999, the National Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate proposed a ban on the two groups of flame retardants which were believed to be the most dangerous, polybrominated dipohenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are lower brominated compounds, and polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) (see related story).

“Brominated flame retardants were first discovered in sediment and fish downstream from plastics and textile industries in Sweden,” said the author of the report, Cynthia de Wit of the Institute of Applied Environmental Research. “Now we know that they are found practically everywhere including in humans. They are also present in indoor environments, e.g. work places, where they may leak from components in computers and other electronic equipment.”

As they are persistent, and able to bioaccumulate in animals, particularly in fatty tissue, in some habitats and species the levels of these chemicals are increasing, and in others they are decreasing, says the report. Amounts of PBDE in fish and guillemot from the Baltic are declining, but at the same time, levels have doubled in human breast milk since 1992.

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