Chemophobia can’t keep bromine down

By Laura Syrett
Published: Tuesday, 02 July 2013

Bromine might have had a bad press recently, but health concerns about brominated chemicals coupled with weak demand from traditional markets is driving the chemicals industry to up its game, Laura Syrett discovers.

The bromine industry has had it tough of late. On the one hand, industrial bromine producers have been hit by faltering demand and falling prices as manufacturing and construction, the chief consumers of bromine products, stutter under slowing economic growth.

On the other hand, brominated chemicals used in everything from soft drinks to flame retardants have been stung by a backlash of ‘chemophobia’, following the publication of a number of studies linking brominated chemicals in household products to a host of debilitating health problems in humans.

While most chemical companies have shrugged off market weakness as a sign of the times linked to macroeconomic factors beyond their control, the ‘bad press’ bromine chemicals have received is proving to be a catalyst for the industry to urgently redress the claims made against it.

Since IM last ran a feature on consumer hostility towards flame retardant chemicals (September 2012, Flame retardants face new challenges), the chemicals industry has decided to close ranks and meet its critics head-on.

This month, IM spoke to two leaders in the bromine business - Great Lakes Solutions, a business of US-based Chemtura Corporation, and Israel Chemicals Ltd - to learn how the industry is dealing with the challenge of consumer safety.

Bromine misconceptions

One of the things the chemicals industry is concerned about is the amount of misinformation it says is publicised about bromine.

Elemental bromine does not occur freely in nature, but is extracted from bromide compounds found in seawater and other naturally-occurring brines. Elemental bromine is a corrosive and toxic substance with properties between those of fellow halogens, chlorine and iodine.

Bromine-based chemicals, however, are considered non-toxic and are used in a wide variety of industrial and consumer applications. Brominated chemicals are made by reacting bromine with a variety of other raw materials to produce organobromines and inorganic bromides. Organobromines include intermediates used to make fine chemicals, agricultural products and pharmaceuticals. Inorganic bromides are used as raw materials to make items like tyres, plastics and water sanitisers. They are also used as bulk solutions for oil exploration and to reduce mercury emissions from power stations.

“Addressing misconceptions reported in popular media is a fact of life for the chemical industry,” Great Lakes Solutions told IM.

“A common mistake is to characterise a wide variety of substances based on a single characteristic, such as containing bromine. The fact is that there is a wide variety of products which contain bromine which have very different compositions and properties,” Great Lakes said.

Chemicals companies like Great Lakes have been eager to stress that not only are brominated chemicals safe substances, but their ability to prevent fires in homes and offices plays a crucial role in consumer health and safety.

Flame retardants are commonly used in textiles to reduce both the potential of ignition and the likelihood of flames spreading once a fabric has been set alight. While many materials without a retardant melt, allowing flames to spread quickly to other flammable materials during a fire, adding a flame retardant to a fabric makes this process less likely.

In a recent press release posted on the American Chemical Society’s website, researchers stated that upholstery furniture and mattresses not coated with a flame retardant, and made of polyurethane materials, are some of the first things to ignite in 17,000 fires per year in the US.

The use of flame retardants is therefore an essential requirement for most manufacturing industries, where products are rigorously tested against strict fire safety standards before they can be approved for sale to consumers.

Flame retardants scorched by consumer health scare

The use of brominated chemicals in household items such as televisions and furniture has been under scrutiny after research published in a number of scientific journals suggested that ingesting brominated substances can cause a build-up of the chemical in the body leading to health problems including skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders.

In May 2012, a study, entitled ‘HBCD Stereoisomers in US Food from Dallas, Texas,’ was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, claiming to have found measurable levels of HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane), a brominated flame retardant used in insulation foams, in US food products.

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

Following a detailed risk assessment of the potential hazards of HCBD, the European Union’s toxics program, REACH, has identified HBCD as a “substance of very high concern” and called for its phase-out by 2015. Pressure is mounting for a similar ban in the US.

Chemicals companies have acknowledged that new research has linked certain bromine compounds to bioaccumulation of bromine in humans, a situation which can lead to health problems. However, they insist that this is not representative of the majority of brominated flame retardants.

“Recent media coverage on environmental and health concerns are based on a very small and specific number of flame retardants which have been voluntarily phased out, or are on track to be replaced with new, improved products,” Great Lakes told IM.

Flame retardant industry bodies in both North America and Europe have also challenged the findings of studies.

The North American Flame Retardants Alliance (NAFRA) and the European Flame Retardants Association (EFRA) both issued responses downplaying the findings of the Texas study shortly after its publication.

“The real story is that HBCD was not detected in the majority of samples,” a spokesperson for NAFRA, said in May last year.

EFRA followed suit by issuing a statement in June dismissing the study’s suggestion that the amount of HBCD in food could pose a threat to human health.

Reiterating EFRA’s point that HBCD was only present in a minority of the food samples, Dr Phillipe Salemis, EFRA director, emphasised that “in those where [HBCD 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.

Consumers come down hard on soft drinks manufacturers

Unsurprisingly, the direct use of brominated chemicals in food has also faced a backlash as concern over their health risks becomes more widespread.

Earlier this year, international beverage giant PepsiCo Inc. announced that it would no longer be using brominated vegetable oil (BVO) in the citrus-flavoured sports drink Gatorade after an article in the magazine Scientific American sparked a wave of customer complaints about the ingredient.

A petition on the internet site calling for the removal of the chemical from Pepsi’s products received more than 200,000 signatures, prompting a statement from the manufacturer in January saying that it would phase out the use of the chemical.

A spokesperson for Pepsi said that the company was already working to remove the chemical, which is used as a flavour emulsifier in Gatorade and helps to distribute the drink’s colour throughout the bottle.

Pepsi denied that its Gatorade products were unsafe, but confirmed that reformulated versions of the drinks, which will use the non-bromine based substitute emulsifier, sucrose acetate isobutyrate, would be available to buy within a few months.

Rival drink company Coca-Cola, which uses the chemical in its Orange Fanta and Powerade products, confirmed in a statement that BVO is employed as a stabiliser in its soft drinks and gave no indication that it intended to stop using the ingredient.

In June, an article on the viral website BuzzFeed, entitled ‘8 Foods We Eat in the US That Are Banned in Other Countries’, waded into the debate by claiming BVO was a dangerous substance that was irresponsibly added to food products in the US.

“Bromine is a chemical used to stop carpets from catching on fire, so you can see why drinking it may not be the best idea,” the article said.

“BVO is linked to major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss,” it continued, adding that BVO reportedly banned in over 100 countries.

The article has led to wave of criticism from industry experts and scientists who point out several inaccuracies in the claims, including mistaking brominated chemicals for elemental bromine.

Derek Lowe, a US-chemist and science blogger, has taken on BuzzFeed’s claims about bromine’s toxicity by highlighting what he says are some basic but often misunderstood facts about halogen chemistry.

“You can say the same thing for chlorine. After all, it’s right next to bromine in the same column of the periodic table. And its use in World War I as a battlefield gas should be testimony enough. But chlorine is also the major part, by weight, of table salt,” Lowe said.

“Elemental chlorine (and elemental bromine) are very different things than their ions (chloride and bromide), and both of those are very different things again when either one is bonded to a carbon atom [chlorinated and brominated chemicals]”, he added.

Fracking takes the flak

Bromine was subjected to further scrutiny when a study was published in October 2011 by researchers at Penn State University in the US wrongly suggesting that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) had led to increased levels of bromide in drinking water.

The study by the Penn State researchers was revised after test results apparently linking increased bromide in some water wells to Marcellus Shale gas drilling were traced instead to a lab error.

An error notice was published on 22 November 2011 on the website of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, which funded the study.

According to the notice, an accredited laboratory contracted by the researchers incorrectly reported the bromide concentration data that were used in the original report. Updated data showed that increased bromide levels were recorded in one of 42 water wells, not seven wells as originally reported.

Despite the error notification, which was reported in the local press, the original misreporting of the study did little to assuage the concerns of opponents of fracking.

However, other scientists have since published findings that water contaminated with fracking chemicals was unlikely to leach into drinking water supplies, but would instead remain contained within rock formations.

“The injected fracking fluid will likely remain sequestered in the ground,” said Terry Engelder, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University in November 2012, following analysis of the behaviour of injected water in shale geology.

This view was supported by findings by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which sent an email to residents in the Pennsylvanian town of Dimock, stating: “While we are continuing our review, to date the data does not indicate that the well water [in Dimock] presents an immediate health threat to users.”

Companies take action

Although claims about the adverse health impacts of bromine chemicals have been met on all sides by contrary evidence and assertions, it is probably true to say that the negative side of the debate has received the bulk of the publicity.

This has prompted chemical companies to defend themselves against accusations that their products are unsafe, and many bromine producers have expressed frustration over the publication of what they say is misleading information.

“Most of the ‘bad press’ in relation to flame retardants, is the result of non-scientific allegations,” global industrial products manufacturer, ICL, told IM.

ICL revealed that it is working with both EFRA and NAFRA to refute suggestions that bromine-based flame retardants are unsafe, and to provide evidence on the advantages that having robust fire safety standards that brominated flame retardants bring to consumers.

Great Lakes Solutions has also sought to highlight the benefits of flame retardants to consumer safety.

“Fire safety statistics have shown a decline in fires and fire-related injuries and death where fire safety standards have been implemented,” the company told IM.

“The availability of flame retardants has allowed product engineers to design products that meet flammability standards. When it comes to safety, fire is an ever-present hazard in our homes, cars and workplace and flame retardants provide and essential layer of fire prevention,” it added.

New products

Chemicals companies have broadly acknowledged that some brominated chemicals based on ageing formulas and chemistries have created cause for concern amongst consumers, and have responded by phasing out these items and developing a raft of new products which they hope will lay these fears to rest.

“We are concentrating our efforts in the R&D area in order to come up with new applications for bromine,” ICL told IM.

Both Great Lakes and ICL said that resources are being invested in the development of brominated, polymeric flame retardants, which have a number of advantages over existing flame retardants, including their properties as polymers which mean that the chemicals they contain cannot penetrate living tissue.

This in turn means that there is no potential for bioaccumulation of bromine in humans.

Great Lakes Solutions has worked with Dow Chemical Company to commercialise the polymeric technology, and recently launched a new flame retardant called Emerald Innovation 3000.

“We have seen strong market pull for our new flame retardant, which replaces the existing HBCD products and offers significant improvement over current products,” Great Lakes told IM.

According to Great Lakes, Emerald Innovation 3000 can be used as a substitute for HBCD in expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) and extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) insulation with minimal adjustments to the manufacturing process.

ICL has also responded to the drive to phase out HBCD, by developing a new flame retardant called FR-122P.

The product was created under a licence agreement with Dow Global Technologies, a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company. Commercial quantities of FR-122P are already available, and ICL is expecting to increase production of the product this year.

As well as investment in proven product safety and flame retardant performance, bromine producers are also working to make their products environmentally sustainable.

“Great Lakes Solutions is committed to greener innovation in consumer electronics, furniture foam, more energy-efficient thermal insulation and the power industry,” Great Lakes said.

“In addition to R&D investment to commercialise polymeric flame retardants, we are continually assessing the sustainability and competitiveness of our flame retardant portfolio serving other market segments. New products currently in development will focus on components and printed wiring boards for electronics and transportation as well as home furnishing,” it added.

ICL, which extracts its bromine from the Dead Sea (one of the most sustainable sources of the mineral in the world), has implemented similar initiatives, introducing what it calls a “sustainability index”, a new critical methodology for new product development.

The company also said that it will continue to develop its products for emerging and growing bromine markets, such as clear brines for oil drilling and for capturing mercury emissions from coal-fired power stations.

  • Toby H | 27 Sep 2014, 1:38 PM

    Like you said, it is "Chemophobia". People just want to shut down anything chemical and don't want it to survive.