Fire retardants light up pollution conference

Environmentalists call for EU ban on flame retardants as levels increase in breast milk

Research findings presented at a major international conference on environmental pollutants starting in Sweden today have increased concern about the effects of a group of chemicals commonly used in plastics to make them less flammable.

Brominated flame retardants are a special focus of the meeting, which is known as "Dioxin '98" but actually covers a much wider range of halogenated organic pollutants. They are used in items from computer casings and telephones to bed mattresses.

According to one study, there has been a marked increase in the level of flame retardants found in the breast milk of Swedish women over the last 25 years, with levels of polybrominated diphenylether (PBDE) increasing over 50 times.

A study from the Netherlands indicates that the most widely used flame retardant - tetrabromobisphenol-A (TBBP-A) accumulates in the brain of unborn mice if their mothers are exposed to it. Meanwhile another study from Sweden found that even exposure to very low quantities of another retardant - polybrominated diphenylether (PBDE) can cause brain damage in young mice (ENDS Daily 13 August).

Environmental group Friends of the Earth today called for flame retardants to be banned in the EU on the basis of the findings. However, a campaigner warned: "Even when they are banned they will continue to contaminate our bodies and the environment for many years." The group accuses the chemical industry of "cynically" continuing to use the chemicals even though safer alternatives are available.

Launching the conference today, Swedish environment minister Anna Lindh again highlighted the need to develop "new approaches" to tackle the risks of persistent and bioaccumulative chemicals. Earlier this year, Sweden redrew its own chemicals policy in order to speed up risk assessment of chemicals by characterising them in groups according to properties such as persistence, instead of the traditional approach of tackling substances individually (ENDS Daily 15 May). Mrs Lindh told ENDS Daily discussion was continuing on the definition of criteria, and that government officials would be meeting with scientists and industry representatives to share ideas "within a year".

She added that she was "hopeful" that the current re-assessment of EU chemicals policy would lead in the direction of the Swedish approach. "As in Sweden, the problem will be the definition of criteria," she said, and deciding how to approach "chemicals that do not fit criteria but that should be phased out".

Follow Up:
Swedish EPA,tel: +46 8 698 1000; Swedish environment ministry, tel: +46 8 405 1000.

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