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Environment

Flame Retardants Under Scrutiny

Assessment: Officials in U.S. and Canada want data on more compounds

by Cheryl Hogue
April 8, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 14

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Tris(1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate is one flame-retardant chemical that both EPA and Canadian agencies are investigating.
This is the structure of tris(1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate.
Tris(1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate is one flame-retardant chemical that both EPA and Canadian agencies are investigating.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has expanded from four to 20 the number of flame-retardant chemicals it will assess as a prelude to regulation or endorsement of individual compounds as safe for specific uses. In a related move, regulators in Canada are requiring companies to provide data on the manufacture, import, and use of 10 flame-retardant chemicals, including five of the chemicals that are undergoing scrutiny at EPA.

Flame-retardant chemicals are used in a variety of products, including furnishings and child care equipment cushioned with polyurethane foam and polystyrene foam insulation for commercial and residential buildings.

“EPA is committed to more fully understanding the potential risks of flame-retardant chemicals, taking action if warranted, and identifying safer substitutes when possible,” says James J. Jones, the agency’s acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention.

Under plans announced in late March, EPA will assess the toxicity of 12 of the 20 compounds by separating them into three groups that share chemical structure characteristics. Within each group, EPA will compare compounds with incomplete hazard data against one or more that are well studied. The groups are brominated phthalates, chlorinated phosphate esters, and cyclic aliphatic bromides.

For the remaining eight compounds, EPA will study the potential of each flame retardant and its degradation products to persist and bioaccumulate in the environment.

EPA is asking the public—including chemical manufacturers—to voluntarily provide data about the 16 flame retardants newly added to its assessment effort. This includes any unpublished toxicity studies and information on the uses of the compounds. The American Chemistry Council, an industry group that includes makers and importers of flame retardants, says some data are available on these chemicals, and it hopes EPA will work with companies to identify any information gaps.

In Canada, the information sought involves both bulk chemicals and products, such as furniture and children’s items, containing these flame-retardant chemicals. The agencies Environment Canada and Health Canada will use the information collected to assess and possibly regulate the substances.

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