Monday, October 01, 2007

The fire-retardants, they are a’changing

Say goodbye to PBDEs (well... at least in some states, in some products in the near future.)

There’s one of those rare heartening reports just published in the this week's online News section of Environmental Science and Technology, Formulating Environmental Friendly Flame Retardants. It’s good to hear every once in a while that industrial processes can change, even if not completely voluntary, particularly when it comes to chemicals that we know are a problem.

Take for example, the polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) that are commonly used as flame retardants when added to plastics including computer plastics, furniture plastics (polyurethane is highly flammable), plastic plastics, and other plastics. PBDE’s are just about every where now, from my neighbor’s breast milk here in Western Mass to big momma polar bear’s milk in Alaska, to overly thin, hyperactive, perpetually hungry hyperthyroid house cats.

According to ES&T, in response to legislative pressures (certain PBDEs have already been discontinued, others are now banned in a few states), and pressure from consumers and plastics' producers, “The industry is responding with new approaches for making flame retardants, and some design teams are actively adopting the tenets of green chemistry. In the long run, the work now under way could result in the development of materials that are inherently resistant to fire.”

As industry moves away from halogenated flame retardants ( chemicals like bromine, fluorine and chlorine) a positive move, and turns instead to phosphorus-based flame retardants, metal hydroxide flame retardants, and nanoclay flame retardants, let’s just hope there’s enough foresight, oversight and whatever else, such that the use and development of these new products won’t bypass careful environmental and health evaluation. Otherwise we might end up in another twenty or thirty years wondering why Isidora the house cat, after spending her life lounging around on the carpet, the new couch, or the new bed (the slim high def television will no longer be an option) isn't acting quite right.

UPDATE: A letter in the October 12 2007 issue of Science by biophysical chemist Arlene Blum addresses "The Fire Retardant Dilemma." While pointing out that replacements for pentabrominated fire-retardants may be no safer than the chemicals they replace, Blum calls for the United States to follow the example set by the Europeans. Writes Blum, "New European regualtions for the Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) require industry to provide data to establish the safety of new and existing chemicals. The United States should follow suit." Adding that "Fire-retardant chemicals in our homes should not pose a greater hazard to our health and environment than the risk of the fires they are supposed to prevent."

Well said.

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