Flame retardants face new challenges

By Laura Syrett
Published: Tuesday, 28 August 2012

A new study claiming to have found measurable levels of HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane), a brominated flame retardant, in US food products, has been challenged by industry bodies in the EU and the US.

A new study claiming to have found measurable levels of HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane), a brominated flame retardant, in US food products, has been challenged by industry bodies in the EU and the US.

The study, ‘HBCD Stereoisomers in US Food from Dallas, Texas,’ was submitted to Environmental Health Perspectives Journal in January 2012 and published at the end of May this year.

It analysed 36 individual food samples, including peanut butter, poultry, fish and beef, and found detectable levels of HBCD in 15 of those samples, the study said.

The study suggested that food containing the chemical may be a substantial contributor to elevated-HBCD levels observed in humans in other studies.

Health risks associated with HBCD exposure include alterations in immune and reproductive systems, neurotoxic effects and endocrine disruption.

Industry reaction

The North American Flame Retardants Alliance (NAFRA) and the European Flame Retardants Association (EFRA) both issued responses downplaying the findings.

“The real story is that HBCD was not detected in the majority of samples,” Bryan Goodman, a spokesperson for NAFRA, said in a statement on 31 May.

EFRA issued a statement on 15 June dismissing the study’s suggestion that the amount of HBCD in food could pose a threat to human health.

Reiterating Goodman’s point that HBCD was only present in a minority of the food samples, Dr Phillipe Salemis, EFRA director, emphasised that “in those where it was [detected], it was far below levels where one might see adverse health effects”.

“The authors themselves noted that human exposure from the foods that were studied is well below critical effect levels identified by the EU,” Salemis added.

Both associations also stressed that the analysed foods were selected from a group in which HBCD had previously been identified, introducing a risk of bias.

Additionally, researchers had focused on the frequency of identification, rather than levels measured, which were slightly lower than previous studies, the associations claimed.

In response to the news that peanut butter was one of the foods found to contain detectable levels of HBCD, the American Peanut Council (APC) issued a statement saying: “We are concerned to read reports about a study linking a fire retardant chemical to a wide range of foods.”

“The researchers did not detect any of the compound in the three peanut butter samples taken for this limited study and found minute traces in one sample of peanut butter from a previous study,” the APC added.

The APC, however, reassured consumers that “the the American peanut industry is nonetheless committed to understanding this research thoroughly and collaborating with public health officials on any further actions that may be necessary”.

Balancing risks

The flame retardants industries in the EU and the US have come under sustained pressure from environmental and health and safety groups in recent months over the potential health risks posed by flame-retardant chemicals.

The groups claim that the damage caused by hazardous chemicals needs to be balanced with the danger of fire in domestic households.

In the US, the Green Science Policy Institute argued that flame retardants posed important health risks in a report, ‘The Case against Candle Resistant TVs’, published on 23 March 2012.

“Proposed amendments to International Electro Technical Commission [IEC] standards 60065 and 62368 for candle ignition-resistance of television enclosures have no fire-safety rationale as well as a large potential to cause serious harm to health and the global environment,” the report said.

The amendments in question were voted down by the TC108 National Committee in May.

EFRA issued a statement soon afterwards expressing its “concern” over the decision, arguing that the new standards would have increased fire safety for televisions in domestic use.

A series of articles published in the Chicago Tribune have raised anxiety over California’s stringent fire-resistance regulations, which act as the default standard for the US.

The paper claimed in July that “toxic flame retardants” were being pushed by industry lobbyists as necessary to the fire safety of consumer products, despite the fact that incidents of candle ignition-type fires were low.

The paper also reported that the current candle-flame ignition test, which can only be met by flame-retardant foams, will shortly be replaced with a less rigorous smoldering-cigarette test by California’s industry regulators.

Openings for alternatives

Alternative fire-resistant materials may gain commercial traction as the consensus moves against traditional bromine-based flame retardants.

Alexium International Group, a US-based manufacturer of flame-retardant textile treatments, said that it expects to benefit from industry and legislative moves away from traditional retardants.

“Since our novel FR [flame-retardant] chemistry does not contain bromine or any other halogens, we feel very confident that we will find commercial traction,” Stefan Susta, Alexium COO, said.

“We anticipate carrying the market momentum into our recent discussions with potential licensees in Europe, Australia and Asia - and will extend future applications beyond the textile industry,” he added.