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Web Date: December 7, 2011

New Flame Retardant Levels Rising Rapidly

Air Pollution: Air concentrations of the brominated chemicals doubled every 13 months in recent years in Cleveland and Chicago
Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: flame retardants, air pollution, PBDE, TBB, TBPH, Great Lakes, Firemaster
Flame Out
The new flame retardants TBB and TBPH have started replacing polybrominated diphenylethers.
Credit: Environ. Sci. Technol.
Flame Out
The new flame retardants TBB and TBPH have started replacing polybrominated diphenylethers.
Credit: Environ. Sci. Technol.

Created to replace older chemicals thought to pose an environmental threat, new flame retardants have become widespread in the air near the Great Lakes, according to a new report (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es203251f).

Since the 1970s, manufacturers have used retardants to reduce fire risk in consumer products such as upholstered furniture, electronics, and clothing. Commonly used flame retardants called polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) volatilize from those products and escape into the environment, where they may pose health and environmental hazards.

In 2004, the flame-retardant industry began replacing PBDEs with new formulations including Firemaster 550 and Firemaster BZ-54, which contain 2-ethylhexyl-2,3,4,5-tetrabromobenzoate (TBB) and bis(2-ethylhexyl)-tetrabromophthalate (TBPH). But these chemicals could also have environmental risks: Research has suggested that the compounds can build up in fish and damage their DNA.

So Ronald A. Hites of Indiana University, Bloomington, and his colleagues wanted to know if TBB and TBPH had started to accumulate in the environment. The researchers analyzed 507 air samples collected by the Integrated Atmospheric Deposition Network, a U.S.-Canada program that monitors air quality in the Great Lakes region. Hites and his team used gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to measure levels of the two chemicals in samples collected between 2008 and 2010. They detected TBB and TBPH in the vast majority of samples from Chicago and Cleveland, where levels of the compounds doubled approximately every 13 months. They also found the compounds in about half of air samples from four rural sites. At those sites, levels doubled every 19 months.

The flame retardants even reached remote Eagle Harbor in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which suggests to Hites that winds transport the chemicals over hundreds of miles. He points out that scientists don’t know much about these chemicals’ environmental fate. They may degrade naturally in the environment, he says, but they also may not.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Barbara Cereghino (Wed Dec 07 15:11:45 EST 2011)
It's good to hear that this issue is being studied. Are any new flame retardant chemicals in the pipeline? Or searches for more naturally flame retardant materials?I'd also be interested in studies comparing the potential damage of using the old chemicals against using the current ones, once more is known.
Ken Smith (Fri Dec 09 17:11:56 EST 2011)
It would be useful to get a sense of the quantities, not just the apparent "doubling" in a certain period of time. The capability to detect and measure certain structures have allowed us to see all sorts of potential "boogeymen" around us, yet we have no understanding of the true risk to health based on this kind of study. Sadly, we react to everything and become more and more frightened. Look, for example, at the headlines that typically accompany these CEN articles -- very provocative and alarmist.
penny (Thu Feb 13 09:23:26 EST 2014)
Have there been any studies on fish samples in the great lakes yet?
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