Flame retardant raises health concerns

Burn test
RTP engineer Sean Cumiskey demonstrates a flame test on plastic not treated with flame retardant.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

At the Minnesota state Capitol on a recent afternoon, environmentalists were zapping TV sets, computers and furniture with an analyzer gun.

A Toshiba television set in the Secretary of State's office gave them what they were looking for: 14 percent bromine.

Bromine has been widely used in flame retardants since the 1970s, in everything from TV sets to upholstery backing. But recently some scientists have become concerned.

They're investigating the flame retardant's potential links to cancer, developmental problems in children's brains and interference with the immune system.

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"There was so much data for their universal occurrence in the environment -- in sediment, sand and soil, in wildlife and people -- that it was just a real awakening."

Kathleen Schuler of the Institute on Agriculture and Trade Policy, the environmental group with the analyzer, wants to find other ways to protect people from fires. "We're not saying that it's going to make them sick, or that it's necessarily going to create an unhealthy environment," she said. "What we're talking about is putting toxic substances in objects when we know there are safer alternatives."

Schuler's group pushed for a ban on brominated flame retardants in Minnesota three years ago. At that time, California banned two brominated flame retardants. The main manufacturer, Great Lakes Chemicals, voluntarily ceased production.

But the most common brominated flame retardant, known as "deca," is still widely used.

Deca prevents things like TVs from catching on fire and stops fires from spreading. Flame retardant makers say their products save hundreds of lives a year.

Steve Maki, vice president for technology at RTP, a Winona company, drove to the State Capitol twice this year to testify against the proposed ban. His company makes the plastic that ends up in things like light switches and electrical connectors.

"One of our biggest applications would be timer components that go into washing machines or dryers," he said. "Sometimes when you hear the washing machine and turn the dial to set the cycle on your washing machine, they need to pass a certain flammability requirement."

To keep that plastic from burning, RTP mixes in deca. Maki brings out a small vial that looks like powdered sugar.

"We handle this material in its raw form, which is the exact powder," he said. "We've been using it for 25 years here at RTP. We use lots of it, and we've never had a single incident with health or environmental concern with this additive."

In its lab in Winona, RTP does flame tests on its products. Engineers reach into a compartment that looks like a big oven with a sliding door, and use Bunsen burners to try to light things on fire.

In this test, one piece of plastic that looks like a white popsicle stick has deca in it. The other one, a clear stick of plastic, doesn't.

The deca-treated stick stops burning as soon as the burner is pulled away. The blackened plastic smokes then snuffs out.

"You saw how quickly -- it was probably a second or so that fire goes out," Maki said.

But the plastic with no flame retardant curls like melted wax.

"The whole bar is engulfed in flame right now. There's dripping particles of polypropelene igniting whatever source is below," he said. "This bar is going to burn all the way up. There isn't going to be anything else. If you had a component made with this type, it would totally consume itself."

Maki said RTP does work with alternatives to deca, but it doesn't find them as effective, especially in the plastic used to make switches, battery casings and things like that washing machine dial.

Maki said about 10 years ago, his company started tracking developments in Europe, where scientists first began raising concerns about brominated flame retardants.

A Swedish researcher found the chemicals showing up in human breast milk. That set off a flurry of international research to see where else they might turn up. "I felt like I had been hit by a speeding train," said Linda Birnbaum, the director of the experimental toxicology division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Birnbaum said by 2001, all the new data about flame retardants was unsettling.

"Not only were they associated with a multitude of effects in animal studies, but there was so much data for their universal occurrence in the environment -- not only in sediment, sand and soil, but in wildlife and people -- that it was just a real awakening," she said.

The flame retardants have three traits scientists like Birnbaum worry about -- they are persistent, they accumulate in living creatures and they are toxic.

"There's clear evidence for deca in fish, birds, marine mammals, polar bears, also in people." she said.

Birnbaum said North Americans have levels of flame retardants in their bodies approximately 10 times higher than Europeans or Japanese, and they are doubling every two to five years. Those levels include flame retardants that have been phased out but are still circulating in the environment.

But it's not clear what that means. EPA official policy says there is insufficient information currently available to determine that deca presents an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment.

Since 2001, bromine manufacturers have participated in a voluntary program with the EPA to monitor possible effects of flame retardants on children.

"I think it would be fair to say U.S. EPA is all over this subject," said John Kyte, the North American policy director for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, an industry group.

He said given the EPA's attention, there's no reason for states like Minnesota to ban the chemicals.

"The fact that the U.S. EPA has literally dozens of programs looking at deca, ongoing analysis, checking from every possible perspective, suggests to me that these activities at the state level are unnecessary -- and could actually lead to an inconsistent patchwork of legislation that causes more problems than it solves," he said. No state has banned deca, but nine are considering it.

Europe has been the biggest battleground for chemical regulation, and that's put some pressure on global manufacturers to find alternatives.

Mark Rossi, research director from Clean Production Action in Massachusetts, flew in to meet with Minnesota lawmakers. He said big companies like Sony, Philips and Panasonic are moving away from using deca, but legislation would ensure every manufacturer does.

"We're seeing the shift happen in TV manufacturers," he said. "Where some of them have said Europe is getting out of this chemical, we're getting out of this chemical. Now in the U.S., 57 percent are deca free. Companies are making these decisions, deca free and bromine free, by 2010."

Rossi said there's no perfectly safe replacement for deca, but there are improvements. The ideal, he says, is to make products with naturally flame resistant materials so extra chemicals aren't necessary.

The Minnesota Professional Firefighters say they would support the ban.

A coalition of other fire safety groups, including the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, opposes the ban, but supports a study of deca.