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Brominated flame retardants


Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are a group of chemicals added to many products, including computers, TVs and household textiles, in order to reduce fire risk. Most concern has been expressed over polybrominated biphenyls (PBB), which have similar properties to PCBs, and whose use is fairly restricted, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and tetrabromobisphenol a (TBBP-A).

Persistence and bioaccumulation

PBBs and PBDEs have been found to contaminate the blubber of sperm whales in the remote deep waters of the Atlantic (de Boer et al., 1998). PBDEs have been found in Long-Finned Pilot Whales in the Atlantic (Lindstrom et al., 1999).

PBDEs have also been found to contaminate human breast milk in Sweden (Darnerud et al., 1998). Recent Swedish research has found that PBDEs were present in the blood of office workers who use computers, and also in hospital cleaners and workers at an electronics-dismantling plant. The highest levels were in the latter, demonstrating the role of electrical goods in the contamination (Sjordin et al., 1999). It has also been reported that TBBP-A has been found in the blood of office workers (ENDS, 1998).

Within the UK, the river Tees has recently been shown to be heavily contaminated with PBDEs, downstream of a Great Lakes Chemical Company plant at Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, which has manufactured PBDEs (Alchin et al., 1999).

Hormone disrupting effects

Heating (for example during manufacture of plastics) and burning of materials containing PBBs, PBDEs and other brominated flame retardants can produce polybrominated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans, which have similar toxicological effects to chlorinated dioxins (WHO, 1998).

It has been reported that TBBP-A is active in a breast cancer cell assay; its chemical structure is very similar to bisphenol a.

Research has shown that low level exposure of young mice to PBDEs causes permanent disturbances in behaviour, memory and learning (Eriksson et al., 1998). PBDEs have also been shown to disrupt the thyroid hormone system in rats and mice; these systems are a crucial part of the development of the brain and body (Darnerud and Thuvander, 1998; Hallgren and Darnerud, 1998).

Policy response

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for PBDEs 'not to be used where suitable replacements are available' [6]. The PBDEs are currently moving slowly through the EU's existing chemicals process, but Sweden is pushing for a ban on PBBs and PBDEs within 5 years (ENDS, 1999).

The Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate have produced a report on 'Phase-out of PBDEs and PBBs', listed on the web here. In contrast to the WHO and the Swedes, the UK Department for Trade and Industry published a report claiming that concerns about these chemicals were 'chemical paranoia or chemophobia' (DTI, 1999).

The EU is currently drawing up proposals that will ban the use of PBDEs and PBB in electrical equipment; these proposals are being fought by the American Electronics Association (ENDS, 1999b).

The EU ecolabel already excludes brominated flame retardants, and Dell have said they intend to apply (ENDS, 1998b). Both NEC and Phillips are working to replace brominated flame retardants (ENDS, 1999c; ENDS, 1999d).

This page was last updated in October 1999
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Allchin, C. R., Law, R. J. and Morris, S. 1999. Polybrominated diphenylethers in sediments and biota downstream of potential sources in the UK. Environmental Pollution 105, p197-207.

Darnerud, P. O., Atuma, S., Aune, M., Cnattingius, S. and Wernroth, M.-L. 1998. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in breast milk from primiparous women in Uppsala county, Sweden. Organohalogen Compounds 35, p411-414.

Darnerud, P. O. and Thuvander, A. 1998. Studies on immunological effects of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) exposure in rats and mice. Organohalogen Compounds 35, p415-418.

de Boer, J., Wester, P. G., Pastor i Rodriguez, D., Lewis, W. E. and Boon, J. P. 1998. Polybrominated biphenyls and diphenylethers in sperm whales and other marine mammals - a new threat to ocean life? Organohalogen Compounds 35, p383-386.

DTI, 1999. Risks and benefits in the use of flame retardants in consumer products, UK Department for Trade and Industry/University of Surrey Polymer Research Centre, January 1999.

ENDS 1998. Swedish research spotlights brominated flame retardant risks. ENDS Report 276, p6.

ENDS, 1998b. Dell poised to apply for new EC eco-label for computers, ENDS Report 282, p30-31, July 1998.

ENDS, 1999. Swedes, UK in new row over EC chemicals programme. ENDS Report 295, p45-46.

ENDS, 1999b. Producer responsibility retained for household electronic waste. ENDS Report 295, p46.

ENDS, 1999c. Philips replaces plastics with board for disposable packaging. ENDS Report 294, p29.

ENDS, 1999d. NEC develops "environmentally friendly" flame retardants. ENDS Report 295, p31.

Eriksson, P., Jakobsson, E. and Fredriksson, A. 1998. Developmental neurotoxicity of brominated flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers and tetrabromo-bis-phenol A. Organohalogen Compounds 35, p375-377.

Hallgren, S. and Darnerud, P. O. 1998. Effects of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and chlorinated paraffins (CPs) on thyroid hormone levels and enzyme activities in rats. Organohalogen Compounds 35, p391-394.

Lindström, G., Wingfors, H., Dam, M. and Bavel, B. v. 1999. Identification of 19 polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in long-finned Pilot Whale (Globicephala melas) from the Atlantic. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 36, p355-363.

Sjödin, A., Hagmar, L., Klasson-Wehler, E., Kronholm-Diab, K., Jakobsson, E. and Bergman, A. 1999. Flame retardant exposure: Polybrominated diphenylethers in blood from Swedish workers. Environmental Health Perspectives 107, p643-648. The abstract is available free here.

WHO, 1998. Environmental Health Criteria 205: Polybrominated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans, World Health Organisation, Geneva, 1998.

URL: http://website.lineone.net/~mwarhurst/bfr.html