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
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.
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.
reported in popular media is a fact of life for the chemical
industry, Great Lakes Solutions told
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
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
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
In a recent press release posted on
the American Chemical Societys 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
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
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
Unions 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
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
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
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 studys suggestion that
the amount of HBCD in food could pose a threat to human
Reiterating EFRAs 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,
Consumers come down hard on soft drinks
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
Change.org calling for the removal of the chemical
from Pepsis 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
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 drinks 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 BuzzFeeds claims
about bromines toxicity by highlighting what he says are
some basic but often misunderstood facts about halogen
You can say the same thing
for chlorine. After all, its 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
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
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
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
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
Great Lakes Solutions has also
sought to highlight the benefits of flame retardants to
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.
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
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
ICL has also responded to the drive
to phase out HBCD, by developing a new flame retardant called
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
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.