WASHINGTON - February 18 - A commonly used flame retardant threatens health and illustrates the need to reform U.S. toxic chemical policy, according to a new report released today by U.S. PIRG. In lab tests, scientists have linked decabrominated diphenyl ether (Deca) --a chemical closely related to two flame retardants recently banned in California-- to health effects including neurological damage or permanent memory loss, and have detected the chemical in the breast milk of American women at levels higher than anywhere else in the world.
"Mothers and their children should not be involuntary test subjects for the effects of Deca and other toxic chemicals," reports U.S. PIRG's Environmental Health Associate Meghan Purvis. "The good news is Deca is not necessary for fire safety: alternatives exist that protect people from fire and are not linked to negative health effects."
Toxic flame-retardants like Deca are widely used in a variety of common consumer products, including in electronics and electrical equipment, as well as in upholstery and other textiles. North American industry used more than 49 million pounds in 2001 -- about half the world market.
Deca and other toxic flame retardants escape from consumer products into air and water and have been found in household dust and in the food supply. The chemicals accumulate in the human body, pass from a mother to a developing fetus, and have been found in human breast milk.
"Mothers and babies have a fundamental right to breast milk that is free of toxins," commented Carrie Ganz, IBCLC, MSW, the Area Coordinator of Leaders for the La Leche League of Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia.
Deca is one type of flame retardant called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs.) Deca breaks down under sunlight and during metabolic processes into the types of toxic flame-retardants, pentabrominated (Penta) and octabrominated (Octa) diphenyl ethers, recently banned in California and Europe. One manufacturer has agreed to voluntarily phase out all their production of Penta to avoid human health consequences nationwide.
"The latest science clearly points to the need for a federal ban of Deca and other toxic flame retardants," said U.S. PIRG's Purvis. "We cannot continue to expose children or adults to harmful chemicals like Deca while we wait for health impacts to develop. Harmful chemicals should not be placed on the market in the first place." The main U.S. law for chemicals regulation is the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Under TSCA, the EPA has the authority to ban chemicals, but must take on such a great burden for action that they have not banned a chemical since PCBs were banned in 1976. As a result, chemicals like Deca can be on the market for decades before their threat to human health is discovered.
California's ban did not include Deca because the science was incomplete and the chemical industry argued that Deca molecules were too big to be absorbed by people's bodies. However, several recent groundbreaking studies summarized in U.S. PIRG's report found Deca in human blood and breast milk in the bodies of electronics workers as well as in people who had not been exposed in the workplace.
U.S. PIRG called on Congress to ban Deca and other PBDEs. In addition, U.S. PIRG advocated reform of toxic chemical regulation and efforts to protect human health through extensive pre-market health effects testing and reductions in the use of hazardous chemicals.