Monday, June 16, 2014

Flame Retardants in Your Home and Your Body

Last Thursday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the release of the government’s final report on alternatives to the flame retardant HBCD and an updated draft report on alternatives to the flame retardant pentaBDE.

HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) was used for decades around the world as a fire retardant before it was identified that it was in reality a whole group of compounds, and all these compound were a health concern. In recent years the European Chemicals Agency found that HBCD persists in the environment and does not break down into safer chemicals. It was also found to be toxic to aquatic invertebrates. According to the EPA, HBCD is also an endocrine disruptor that bio-accumulates in man and animals. In studies it was found in breast milk, breast tissue and fat cells and throughout the food chain.

The flame retardant HBCD may no longer be produced or used. This was decided by representatives from over 160 countries in late May 2012 at a UN conference on chemicals in Geneva. HBCD was formerly used as a flame retardant for plastics, electronics and textiles, and especially for insulation panels in buildings and may exist in buildings built in the last decades of the 20th century. It was more widely used in Europe than the United States where pentaBDE had been the preferred flame retardant for these materials before it began to be phased out in 2004.

HBCD is primarily used in the United States in polystyrene foam insulation. Polystyrene insulation is creates an extremely energy-efficient building envelope and has been used in “green-home” and “green-building” construction to reduce energy use because it helps to cut home energy use which accounts for about 20 % of the greenhouse gases emitted by the United States every year. Unfortunately, polystyrene is flammable. Under National Fire Protection Association nations fire-safety codes, a flame retardant for polystyrene is necessary and HBCD was the flame retardant of choice.

Now the EPA has announced three possible replacements. All three alternatives are brominated- a butadiene styrene brominated copolymer, a TBBPA-bis brominated ether derivative, and TBBPA bis-(2,3-dibromopropyl) ether. All brominated flame retardants may pose a health concern. No non-brominated flame retardants are known to be compatible in polystyrene manufacturing and the flame retardant tests. Use of polystyrene in your home should be carefully considered.

Blown-in cellulose, though not as effective as foam, is both affordable and environmentally benign. It is made with recycled newspapers and cotton fibers, and the flame retardant is boric acid, a naturally occurring substance that does not introduce new pollutants into the environment. ICYNENE LD-R-50™ (which I put in the crawl space above my garage as a test sight) according to the manufacturer, does not contain poly-brominated diphenyl ethers or any other brominated compounds. ICYNENE LD-R-50™ is made from castor oil and according to the manufacturer testing does not support fire. Nonetheless, it is a combustible material and it requires a thermal barrier to separate it from the interior occupied space. There has been a poor history of chemical foam insulation and I’ve decided to stick with cellulose despite having to add additional insulation each decade.

HBCD may be released to air, water, soil, and sediment during manufacture, processing, transportation, use, improper storage or containment, product usage, and disposal of products containing HBCD. Consumers have the potential to be exposed to HBCD from the off-gassing from treated textiles, and materials in the home which can be inhaled, ingested as dust, or through dermal contact. However the magnitude of this exposure is highly uncertain. All the EPA really knows is that HBCD has also been shown to be persistent and to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in food chain (U.S. EPA 2010).

The other flame retardants in the EPA announcement, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) include the commercial versions of pentabromodiphenyl ether (c-pentaBDE), octabromodiphenyl ether (c-octaBDE), and decabromodiphenyl ether (c-decaBDE). Each of these commercial products is also a mixture. PBDEs were used as flame retardants in a number of applications, including textiles, plastics, wire insulation, and automobiles. These chemicals were used to manufacture electronics, furniture, mattresses, automobile seats, textiles, and wire and cable insulation. Many of the products containing these chemicals are still in use today. If you own any furniture manufactured after 1975 it may also contain pentaBDE.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation is to a large extent responsible for the use of pounds of flame retardants in furniture. In 1975 the California's furniture flammability standard Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) was issued in response to a state law and as many California standards became the driver of chemical flame retardant use in residential furniture in the United States. With the phase-out of the polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) FR mixture PentaBDE in 2005, alternative flame retardants are increasingly being used to meet TB 117; however, it was not clear if these substitute chemicals were any safer.

California modified TB 117. Effective January 1, 2014, the new standard called TB117-2013, which makes children’s products exempt from California flammability standards and changes the flammability standard for upholstered furniture is now in effect. New baby products like mattresses, care seats, changing mats will not be required to contain added flame retardants. However, the regulation allows for a transition period during 2014 so the foam in baby products is likely to continue to contain flame retardants. You should look for baby products without a TB117 label to protect your baby. Natural products like feathers, down, wool and organic cotton were always exempted from the rule- which would explain my pillows, bedding, and the down cushions on the sofa my husband and cat both love to nap on.
My kitty sleeping on her flame retardant free sofa

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