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
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
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).
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has
called for PBDEs 'not to be used where suitable replacements
are available' . 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'
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
to the hormone disrupting chemicals home page
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
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,
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
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
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
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.