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Deca-bromine to Be Phased Out
Chemical manufacturers reach agreement with EPA to phase out deca-bromine, a controversial flame retardant used in iGPS pallets.

By DeAnna Stephens
Date Posted: 2/1/2010

            The controversial fire retardant used on some plastic pallets has been dealt a double blow. Two separate nationwide actions that aim to stop the use of deca-bromine (deca or DecaBDE) by the end of 2013 have arisen.

            In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the two largest U.S. producers and the largest U.S. importer of deca-bromine had reached a voluntary agreement with the EPA to phase out the production, importation and sales of the chemical in the United States. The chemical will be phased out for most uses by the end of 2012 and entirely by the end of 2013.

            “Though DecaBDE has been used as a flame retardant for years, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned about its impact on human health and the environment,” said Steve Owens, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances.

            Owens explained, “Studies have shown that DecaBDE also can degrade to more toxic chemicals that are frequently found in the environment and are hazardous to wildlife.”

            Only a day before the EPA’s announcement, the Deca-bromine Elimination and Control Act (H.R. 4394) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME). This legislation seeks to phase out the production, sale and import of deca-bromine by 2013 and requires that any new alternatives be safer. 

            Rep. Pingree’s daughter, Maine Speaker of the House, Hannah Pingree, was the sponsor of legislation that successfully banned the chemical in Maine in 2006.

            Even with the EPA’s announcement, Rep. Pingree said that she intends to pursue the legislative ban to ensure that deca-bromine is completely banned.

            “I am encouraged by this eleventh hour agreement and if it is followed it will achieve my primary goal with this legislation – getting deca out of our environment,” Rep. Pingree said. “The chemical industry hasn’t always lived up to voluntary agreements. This bill will make sure they do.”

            She also wants to guarantee that the replacement chemicals are safer than deca-bromine.

            “We need to make sure that the industry doesn’t start using another chemical that is just as dangerous as deca, so this bill has a provision to make sure that any alternative they come up with has to be safe,” Rep. Pingree said.

            Though the voluntary agreement has been celebrated, there are many others who still want to see a legislative ban on the chemical.

            “We applaud the Deca phase-out deal. Deca is a potent neurotoxin and suspected carcinogen that puts children at risk. It needs to be banned,” said Sonya Lunder, senior scientist at Environmental Working Group (EWG). “Until Congress takes action to reform the federal toxic chemical law, it will take actions like this against individual chemicals to protect public health.”

            “This is an important step forward,” Lunder added, “but it is a voluntary agreement, and it does little to ensure that the substitutes for deca are safe. Rep. Pingree’s bill will give this phase-out the force of law and it will ensure that substitutes for deca are safe.”

            The National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA) has raised concerns about deca-bromine over the last year. The NWPCA pointed to research published by the American Chemical Society that indicates deca-bromine can decompose into its more toxic derivatives (octa and penta). The NWPCA further stated, “Researchers believe the chemical tends to ‘bleed’ so flame retardancy is lost and the toxins can leach.”

            Various flame retardants have been discovered in increasing concentrations along U.S. Coastal waters and the Great Lakes. Environmental groups, researchers and even government officials have voiced concern over the impact of these chemicals on aquatic resources and human health.

            Albemarle Corporation, Chemtura Corporation and ICL Industrial Products, the three companies involved in the voluntary agreement with the EPA, still maintain that deca-bromine is a safe product. They are promoting the phase out as a step in their environmental stewardship programs, not the result of safety or health concerns.

            “While the scientific evidence indicates that DecaBDE does not pose any significant risk to the environment or human health, this action allows us to continue our longstanding efforts to protect people and property from the hazards of fire in a sustainable way,” Craig Rogerson, Chemtura chairman, president and CEO, said.

            The other two companies made similar statements as well.

            The agreement made with the EPA does not include smaller producers and importers. However, it is reasonable to believe that they will follow suit, and the EPA intends to focus on encouraging voluntary phase-outs.

            Neither of these actions as they currently stand would necessarily impact existing pallets already treated with deca-bromine. The bill specifically exempts resold and recycled articles, meaning treated plastic pallets already in the supply chain would not be affected unless it is determined by rule that they pose a threat to public health. However, Speaker Pingree has introduced revisions to the current Maine ban that closes loopholes regarding plastic pallets.

            Specifically, the revision states, “Effective January 1, 2011, a person may not manufacture, sell or offer for sale or distribute for sale or use in the State (Maine) any of the following items containing the ‘deca’ mixture of polybrominated diphenyl ethers: A. Shipping pallets; or B. Any product manufactured from recycled shipping pallets.”

            As the largest plastic pallet pooler, Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS), stands to be significantly affected by both of these measures. Deca-bromine, which is used by iGPS in its second generation design, has been one of the key points in the ongoing public relations war between iGPS and the wood pallet industry, especially CHEP.

            These new provisions, if passed, could significantly impact iGPS by effectively locking it out of the state of Maine by prohibiting the use of its second generation pallets. iGPS would be able to use its first generation pallets, but this design does not have the necessary fire protection required by some facilities without an upgrade in fire suppression technology.

            Pingree’s new bill also would prevent iGPS from recycling its second generation pallets into other products that are sold in Maine. The inability to recycle iGPS pallets made with deca-bromine would impact the sustainability claims of iGPS depending on where a customer does business.

            Maine has been a leader on the deca-bromine issue. It is possible that similar language could be added to the federal bill as it works its way across Capitol Hill or other states could take the more protective measures being considered in Maine. iGPS did not return calls for comment.

            Bob Moore, iGPS chairman and CEO, stated in a recent customer letter, “While the fire retardant in our pallet, DecaBDE, has been used safely for decades and independent testing has confirmed that there is no transfer of DecaBDE from our pallet to packaging or food, this has not stopped our competitors from fabricating bogus ‘safety issues.’ True to form, they deliberately mischaracterized the recent voluntary phase-out agreement between the EPA and producers of DecaBDE, telling our customers that the agreement was essentially putting iGPS out of business. Of course, the opposite is the case. iGPS’ current fleet of pallets, as well as pallets manufactured over the next four years, may be used, and recycled, in perpetuity. And working with our suppliers we fully expect to have a replacement for DecaBDE long before the phase-out is complete.”

            Although iGPS downplays the impact, it is clear that the company will have to reformulate its pallet design. Some customers may not want to use the pallets that have deca-bromine due to the public relations or liability risks. The phase-out raises questions that some potential customers may just want to avoid.

            Regardless of what alternative chemical is used to replace deca, it will require extensive testing before it can receive a UL fire rating, which will be both time consuming and costly. Once a chemical with comparable flame retardant properties is found, its effect on pallet performance will also have to be examined.

            The question of how other chemicals will affect the performance of the pallet is critical. A different chemical could increase the weight of the pallet, leading to increased shipping costs. But even more importantly, it would change the chemical makeup of the plastic, possibly making it more or less brittle, which could affect performance.

            A national ban on deca-bromine is still a long way from becoming law. Being introduced in the House of Representatives is only the first of many steps that H.R. 4394 will need to take. At this point, the voluntary agreement is the only sure change on the horizon besides individual state bans.

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