International Authorities Turn Up the Heat on Toxic Flame Retardants in Building Materials

Bill Walsh - November 6, 2008

In June 2004, the Environmental Building News published an exceptionally thorough analysis warning green building professionals of the environmental health dangers associated with a class of highly toxic chemicals known as brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and called for their phase-out. Recent international developments are amplifying this call into a worldwide chorus.

Virtually all polystyrene foam used in building insulation (both XPS, such as Styrofoam, and EPS) is treated with HEXABROMOCYCLODODECANE, known as HBCD. HBCD is a probable endocrine disruptor which bioaccumulates up the food chain. This class of chemicals suffers from grossly inadequate testing for environmental health impacts, and emissions of HBCD during use in various building applications have not been studied. Its detection in household dust, sewage sludge, breast milk and body fluids as well as wildlife and the global environment is currently attributed to manufacturing emissions. HBCD has other uses such as treating upholstery fabrics; however, 85% is used with polystyrene insulation.

Last month, international authorities initiated two separate processes that will likely result in an international phase-out of HBCD.

On October 28, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) included this flame retardant on its List of Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC). SVHCs are the most hazardous of chemicals and can be toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic, and/or reproductive toxins that are harmful to the environment and human health. What’s more, these chemicals are persistent (last a long time in the environment without breaking down) and/or bioaccumulative (higher concentrations of the chemicals correspond to an organism’s higher rung on the food chain). Under the EU’s new chemical regulation law known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), a Substance of Very High Concern may not be approved for use in the future if there are safer alternatives or if the substance cannot be safely controlled.

Earlier in the month, the fourth meeting of the Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee (POPRC-4) of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) initiated a process that will likely result in listing HBCD as a global pollutant, joining the likes of PCBs and Dioxin as a chemical “…likely, as a result of its long-range environmental transport, to lead to significant adverse human health and/or environmental effects such that global action is warranted…”[1] This will likely result in an eventual global ban on production, use, import and export.

While anachronistic chemical regulations in the US continue to lag behind the 21st century framework being defined regionally by REACH in the EU and globally by the Stockholm Convention, BFRs as a class of chemicals are increasingly the focus of intensive scientific study and regulatory efforts both here and abroad. More than a dozen state laws restricting various BFR use have been passed in the last five years.

A path to safer alternatives to HBCD is inevitable, though not yet entirely clear. The Environmental Building News has blazed such a trail before, forecasting the necessity and ability of American industry to phase-out arsenic based wood treatment formulas in 1997, six years before the chemical industry acceded to market pressure. As with arsenic, and PVC, this is another opportunity where the green building community can be a leader in a necessary market transformation. Read the EBN article on flame retardants (they’ve even made it available to non-subscribers) and add your voice to the chorus.

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