An industrial chemical is collecting inside you. It gathers in your fat, accumulating year after year. You can't avoid absorbing it: The substance is all around you -- in your computer, your TV, your sofa, your rugs, your walls, your car, and the container you'll heat your lunch in. It's there, and almost everywhere else -- in seals, fish, birds, air, soil. No one knows what route it takes to get inside you. And no one knows exactly what it does, but scientists have linked it to thyroid imbalances and learning disabilities.
"Surely," you may be saying to yourself, "the government must be at least monitoring such a threat." But it's not. Poly bromo diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are flame retardants added to furniture foam, electronics, and plastics. While their makers insist that the chemicals protect people from deadly fires, researchers are becoming more and more anxious about the data they see on these thus far unregulated chemicals. PBDEs seem to fall into the category of "persistent organic pollutants" -- a designation shared by the well-known toxins Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and DDT. And PBDEs, in fact, exhibit many of the same behaviors that frightened Congress into banning PCBs in 1976: They mimic estrogen and disrupt the thyroid system; accumulate in each step of the food chain; collect in fat and don't go away, except when shed in breast milk; and migrate all over the globe.
So why haven't you heard more about them? Two reasons: Because our regulatory structures are behind the curve, and because there's money involved.
Bromine has been used in flame retardants since the 1970s, when the chemical industry was casting around for a substitute for now famously disastrous chlorine compounds like PCBs. While some bromine compounds were also banned, PBDEs are still being produced at a rate of 67,000 metric tons per year, creating a $400 million industry. Combine the manufacturers with the companies that buy their products -- computer and TV makers, textile and furniture producers, automakers -- and you have a very powerful lobby indeed.
One PBDE defender is Bob Campbell, the director of corporate regulatory affairs at Great Lakes Chemical and spokesman for the Brominated Flame Retardant Industry Panel, a group of PBDE producing companies. Campbell acknowledges the health concerns surrounding PBDEs, but he insists that the benefits of preventing fires outweigh the possible environmental risks. Campbell's company is participating voluntarily in studies to research the risks posed to children by the chemicals.
"Everybody has slogans these days," Campbell says, "and maybe it's a little corny, but ours is 'we're for the world we all want.'"
It doesn't sound corny. It sounds nebulous. Everyone wants a world where fires don't kill people or damage property, but at what cost? While the industry denies that its products are dangerous, and even questions whether PBDEs detected in the environment were produced by the companies currently manufacturing them (one industry scientist suggests they were perhaps synthesized naturally by marine sponges), many independent researchers are alarmed at the chemical levels they're finding.
Scientists first detected PBDEs in fish off the coast of Sweden in 1981. By the year 2000, PBDEs were being found in everything from seals to fertilizer sludge. But it was the discovery of high -- and rapidly accumulating -- PBDE content in human breast milk that finally galvanized European scientists into action. Their work with environmental groups pressured the European Union (EU) Council and EU Parliament into banning the "penta" PBDE formulation -- the type judged to pose the greatest human health risk -- by the year 2003. The EU Parliament has also proposed general ban on all PBDEs by the year 2007.
U.S. researchers, by contrast, have only recently begun to study PBDEs, but their initial findings have sent shock waves through toxicological circles. The levels detected in the first tests on American breast milk are on average 40 times higher than those reported in Europe.
One scientist not surprised, though, was Robert Hale of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Hale recently published studies on sludge from waste-management facilities and fish in Virginia rivers, and his results rival the world's highest known levels of PBDEs.
"We look at sludge as an early-warning sign," he says. "Fish are next, then ... people."
We have already begun to see the potential effects on human health at lower levels of the trophic web. When tested on rodents, PBDEs caused memory and learning problems, neurological deficiencies, and thyroid imbalances, effects that were shown to worsen as the animals grew. There is also evidence to suggest that PBDEs exacerbate the already-known effects of similar toxins. This leads researchers to worry that "PBDEs and PCBs may be working additively to reduce the intelligence or behavior of children," in the words of a California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official.
"It's sort of like PCBs all over again," says Linda Birnbaum, Division Director at EPA's National Health Lab and one of a handful of people at the agency who know about PBDEs. "We banned PCBs with a lot less information than we have now. Anyone who has studied PCBs is going to say, 'God, this reminds me.'"
Birnbaum holds that bioaccumulation itself should ring warning bells, because any chemical building up in the body is likely to reach a toxic level eventually -- at which point it's too late to remove exposure. She has been holding talks with government scientists and policymakers to do what she calls "consciousness raising" before history repeats itself.
If consciousness is in fact rising, though, it's not happening quickly. The EPA has no immediate plans to track PBDEs and claims that not enough information has been gathered for a thorough risk assessment. EPA toxicologists contacted Hale regarding his results early last year, but he says he is still waiting to hear what they plan to do.
"[The EPA] was somewhat shocked to see the data that they are widely distributed in the US environment," Hale says. "But we haven't heard much from regulatory folks or people involved in environmental monitoring, which is somewhat surprising to us."
Some don't find the EPA's inaction so surprising. For example, Peter de Fur, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and formerly a scientist on the EPA's first chemical advisory committee, claims the EPA often balks at regulations that might upset the market.
"The EPA has a great deal of difficulty with uncertainty in policy arenas, particularly when there are large vested financial interests," he says. Yet de Fur's insight obscures the more disturbing fact that the EPA's hands are tied.
"U.S. chemicals law is so fundamentally flawed that right now EPA couldn't ban PBDEs if they wanted to," says Jeremiah Baumann, an environmental health advocate with U.S. PIRG. "Industrial chemicals have no testing process."
What Baumann means is that of the 80,000 industrial chemicals in use today, less than a third have undergone an assessment of health or environmental risks. The EPA can place a chemical it has concerns about on its "right-to-know" list, but the process of actually banning a chemical under current law generally takes about 10 years. In other words, EPA rarely acts quickly even to ban the chemicals it's worried about. That role has historically fallen to Congress.
But in this case, most lawmakers have never heard of PBDEs. The only dim ray of legislative hope shines in a bill introduced by Independent Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont to implement a treaty the United States signed in Stockholm last year banning twelve of the aforementioned "persistent organic pollutants," or POPs. The United States has already stopped using most of the substances listed in the treaty, but the agreement also includes provisions for adding other pollutants to the list; PBDEs are among the candidates being discussed. Republican Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire, however, has introduced a competing bill from the Bush administration that bans only the so-called "dirty dozen" worst chemicals and provides no way to ban new chemicals if the international community chooses to add one, such as PBDE, to the accord.
Meanwhile, countries that have already banned or will ban PBDEs are nervous. European leaders worry that the pending EU standards may inspire PBDE-dependent industries to join forces and mount a World Trade Organization (WTO) challenge to the upcoming legislation. These corporations, through Chapter 11 provisions of NAFTA and a general pro-business climate within the WTO, have already posed formidable challenges to environmental regulation. The Ethyl Corporation (the mother company of PBDE manufacturer Albemarle) used NAFTA in 1997 to force Canada into repealing its ban on the gasoline additive MMT, a known human neurotoxin, and fork over $13 million in an out-of court settlement.
It's too early to tell what the EU laws will mean for manufacturers of flame retardants. Some say the industry already sees the writing on the wall, and will discontinue them voluntarily in order to avoid the bad PR of complying with a ban. And alternatives do exist that seem much safer, although they, too, need further testing.
In any case, the alacrity the EU showed in responding to PBDEs reflects a stark difference between the American and European approaches toward the regulation of health hazards. Europeans tend to favor a precautionary approach toward products. And scientists and environmentalists on both sides of the Atlantic are now saying that U. S. inaction on PBDEs is indicative of a larger innocent-until-proven-guilty regulatory attitude, one that drives policy for the benefit of industry, frequently at the expense of public health.
"Too often the government has waited for the bodies in the street before they'll take any action," says Steven Lester of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. Many environmentalists echo this sentiment, calling for a fundamental gestalt shift in how we regulate chemicals. Don't wait for people to get sick, they say; if a chemical is building up our bodies, assume that it's toxic and make it a priority to find an alternative.
Everyone agrees that fires are bad. But it's starting to look like the cure -- brominated flame retardants -- may be worse than the disease. PBDEs have only recently begun to emerge as an environmental hazard, but the tale they tell is an old one. It's the story of a government with a childlike trust in industrial chemicals, and, as a result, a slothful response to evidence of their harmful effects -- especially if responding would mean stepping on industry toes. And so even if PBDEs were banned tomorrow, that's not enough for a happy ending. Until we adopt a more cautious regulatory policy and stop assuming that the chemical industry always has our best interests in mind, the story of PBDEs -- or PCBs, or future chemicals like them -- will continue to repeat itself.