Drive under way to ban a controversial chemical

December 14, 2009
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LANSING — Have you ever worried that flame-retardant chemicals in computers or furniture might be hazardous to your health?

A Brownstown lawmaker does worry and wants Michigan to phase out the use of one such chemical: deca-BDE. Deca-BDE is used in electronics and home furnishings to make them difficult to burn.

Soil scientists say deca-BDE and two related fire retardants are considered toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative. They build up in fish and water and can harm the human body and breast milk, as well as water quality.

In 2004, the Legislature banned manufacturing and distributing materials containing more than 0.1 percent of two other flame retardants. However, deca-BDE is still widely used and could degrade into toxic forms, under certain circumstances, studies show.

A bill by Democratic Rep. Deb Kennedy aims to phase out deca-BDE in televisions, computers, mattresses and residential furniture upholstery by Jan. 1, 2012.

“My motivation is to protect public health and keep lakes as clean as possible,” she said. “Deca-BDE is found in every Great Lakes fish we eat because of bioaccumulation.”

The Michigan Chemistry Council has opposed banning deca-BDE. It said existing alternatives to deca-BDE work well on textiles but not as well on plastics. But Mike Shriberg, policy director of the Ecology Center and the Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health in Ann Arbor, said there’s no need to use deca-BDE.

“Exposure to deca-BDE from these products, such as mattresses and furniture, leaches out through the products directly or via dust into people’s bodies and other pathways,” he said.

Shriberg said the level of accumulation in the Great Lakes is a particular concern because deca-BDE is similar to PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — which are chemicals banned in the 1970s because of their high toxicity.

The Michigan Network, a coalition of organizations including the Michigan Nurses Association, Learning Disabilities Association, Michigan chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said toxic levels of deca-BDE and the two related flame retardants are at an all-time high.

A 2008 study by the Michigan Interdepartmental Toxics Steering Group shows chemical levels in human tissues in North America have significantly increased over time and are much higher than levels in Europe or Japan.

Professor Richard Rediske, a water resources expert at Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, said deca-BDE should be banned.

“It’s accumulating in humans by breathing dust,” said Rediske. “The dust falls on food, feed and plant materials which in turn are consumed by animals and move up the food chain. Also in laboratory experiments, deca-BDE mimics thyroid hormones and may produce developmental-related problems.”

A co-sponsor of Kennedy’s bill, Rep. Jimmy Womack, D-Detroit, participated this year in a biomonitoring project by Physicians for Social Responsibility. The organization’s testing found a high level of deca-BDE, mercury and other potentially toxic substances in his blood.

Womack said, “Those chemicals can bring harm to you and your family. As a consequence of that study, I was able to be more empathetic to the need for us to do due diligence when it comes to protection of the public.”

Kennedy said firefighters face the most serious risk.

David Peterson, president of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs and the fire chief in Plainfield Township, said his organization supports her proposal.

“When these compounds are exposed to fire, they burn and release dense fumes and a highly corrosive gas, hydrogen bromide, which expose firefighters to additional chemical hazards,” he said.

The International Association of Fire Fighters also supports the ban. “Many studies involving firefighters exposed to toxic gases during active firefighting and long-term exposure from these chemicals penetrating gear have found that firefighters have a much greater risk of contracting cancer, heart and lung disease and other debilitating diseases,” the organization said in a statement.

Fire retardant alternatives to deca-BDE are available, experts say.

And Rediske, at Grand Valley, said other action also is needed.

“We need to focus more on technology to limit their use, such as electronics that run cooler so we can get lower energy consumption as a secondary benefit,” he said.

Kennedy said a number of leading manufacturers no longer use deca-BDE, including the two largest furniture companies in the state — Herman Miller Inc. and Steelcase Inc. — as well as Michigan-based La-Z-Boy Inc., 14 top U.S. bedding makers and electronics manufacturers like Apple Inc. and Dell Inc.

Some states, such as Washington and Maine, already ban deca-BDE. Similar legislation is pending in Illinois and Minnesota.

“European countries like Sweden stopped using it 30 years ago,” said Kennedy. “Michigan will be one of the leaders.”

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