FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Ecology Unveils Plan for Eliminating Toxic Flame Retardants
New Study Finds Flame Retardants Building Up in Puget Sound Orcas
Press Release: Ecology Unveils Plan for Eliminating Toxic Flame Retardants
The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) yesterday revealed its preliminary draft plan for phasing out toxic flame retardants that have been building up in humans and the environment across Washington state. The plan recommends banning three forms of the flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (or PBDEs), including a complete ban on penta and octa-BDE, and a ban on deca-BDE in consumer electronics (80% of the chemical's commercial use). Ecology issued the draft plan as scientists published a study showing high levels of PBDEs building up in orca whales, including the southern resident orcas that live in Puget Sound.
"Ecology is right to take action to phase out these toxic flame retardants now that we know they are everywhere in the environment, including in orca whales. Orca whales are on the brink of extinction in part because of the toxic legacy created by persistent toxic chemicals in Puget Sound," said Ivy Sager-Rosenthal, policy associate for People for Puget Sound.
Under an agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and a U.S. chemical manufacturer, two of the three main PBDEs in use, penta and octa-BDE, will be taken off the U.S. market at the end of 2004. The chemical industry is fighting to retain use of the third and most heavily used compound, deca-BDE. In a recent analysis of brominated fire retardants in dust samples swiped from computers, the highest levels found were in the form of deca-BDE, adding to the evidence that it can migrate out of products.
"Deca has been found in breast milk, in wildlife, in the environment, and in household dust. It can also break down into more harmful forms of PBDEs that are being phased out," said Laurie Valeriano, policy director for Washington Toxics Coalition. "The only rational response to this vast contamination is to ban deca. We fully support Ecology's recommendation to ban deca in electronics and urge them to include a ban recommendation for all uses of deca in the final plan."
PBDEs are widely used in consumer products, including furniture, electronics, and textiles. Like their chemical cousins PCBs, PBDEs persist in the environment, build up in humans and fish, and are toxic at low levels. PBDEs can affect thyroid hormones and have been shown to cause memory impairments and learning and behavior problems in laboratory animals.
The whale study, published in the August 15 issue of Environmental Science and Technology, measured levels of three different chemicals, including PBDEs, in samples of blubber taken from 39 orca whales from 1993 to 1996. Levels of PBDEs in the whales were the highest levels of the three chemicals measured. Although contamination levels have not yet risen to the level of PCBs previously reported in orcas, it is widely acknowledged that PBDE levels in the environment have risen dramatically since the test samples were taken. The study noted that orcas may be exposed to PBDEs when the chemicals are released from treatment plants that process household and commercial waste contaminated by the chemicals.
"We didn't heed the warning signs with PCBs until it was too late. The state has the opportunity to take preventative action now before we lose the orca and do irreparable damage to the environment and public health," added Sager-Rosenthal.
The orca whale study joins other studies from around the world that show levels of PBDEs increasing in the environment and our bodies. A study by the Environmental Working Group found toxic flame retardants in the breast milk of every American mother tested, and Northwest Environment Watch found levels of toxic flame retardants in milk samples donated by nine Puget Sound women at levels 20 to 40 times higher than levels found in European and Japanese women.
Ecology developed the PBDE phaseout plan at the direction of Gov. Locke and the Legislature. Ecology's plan will be finalized by September 15, and available for public comment. The preliminary draft recommends the following actions:
- A ban on the sale of new products containing penta and octa-BDE by July 2006, if EPA fails to take action.
- A ban on the sale of new consumer electronics products containing deca-BDE by December 2008.
"This is the first step in dealing with these toxic flame retardants," said Mo McBroom, with the Washington Public Interest Research Group. "But it's significant. People are outraged that these chemicals are in our bodies and our environment, and eventually that outrage will force the government to enact an across-the-board ban of all PBDEs."
For a copy of the orca whale study see Rayne, S. M.G. Ikonomou, G.M. Ellis, L.G. Barrett-Lennard, and P.S. Ross. 2004. PBDEs, PCNs, and PBBs in Three Communities of Free-Ranging Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) from the Northeastern Pacific Ocean. Environ. Sci. Technol, (38) 16 or contact Dr. Peter Ross, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Marine Environmental Quality Section, Institute of Ocean Sciences, 250-812-6103.
For more information on the Department of Ecology's work to phase out PBDEs and the preliminary draft recommendations go to www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/eap/pbt/pbde/index.html.
Washington Toxics Coalition
206-632-1545 ext. 114