After years of study, scientists in the U.S. and Europe had reached an alarming conclusion: Flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, build up in blood and breast milk, interfere with natural hormones, trigger reproductive problems and cause developmental and neurological damage.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also began pushing rules that would make it practically impossible to sell imported and recycled products made with the flame retardants. The rules are supported not only by health advocates and environmental groups but by the three major manufacturers of PBDEs.
But after promoting the rules as a significant public health achievement, the EPA has delayed making them final amid fierce opposition from influential industries. Trade groups for automakers, military contractors, aerospace companies, appliance manufacturers and clothing companies are fighting behind the scenes in Washington to scrap the rules, postpone when they take effect or rewrite them to allow PBDEs in certain products.
Adding another twist to the debate, the Pentagon also is urging the EPA to back off.
As part of its "Playing With Fire" series, the Tribune reported this year that federal officials have allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without thoroughly assessing health risks. The fight about PBDEs highlights how loopholes in federal law, along with opposition from corporations resistant to change, make it difficult for the government to ban toxic chemicals even when health effects are well-documented.
"If EPA doesn't do something to address imports, they aren't really going to solve this problem," said Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. "The agency is clearly trying to send signals to the market, but there is plenty of foot-dragging and complaining along the way."
If adopted, the EPA's proposed rules would be a major step toward eliminating chemicals that doubled in the blood of adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004 and have shown no signs of declining since then. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of PBDEs among infants in the world.
People ingest PBDEs — which have been widely used in furniture, electronics, textiles and plastics — after the chemicals escape from products and contaminate dust. Levels are especially high among breast-feeding infants and young children who play on the floor and often put things into their mouths.
Under the proposed rules, companies would be required to inform the EPA before making or importing new products containing PBDEs. Any firm that wants to use the flame retardants after December 2013 would first need to conduct extensive testing to prove its products are safe.
The three largest manufacturers of PBDEs — Albemarle Corp., Chemtura Corp. and ICL Industrial Products — have joined environmental and health groups in pushing for the rules. Now that the companies have agreed to stop making the chemicals, they say they want to prevent competitors from undermining the market for newer flame retardants.
"Albemarle is committed to delivering safe and effective products with increasingly smaller environmental footprints," David Clary, the chemical company's chief sustainability officer, wrote in a letter to the EPA.
Most of the opposition is focused on a PBDE known as deca, which is added to plastic enclosures in televisions, computers and other electronics, airplane and automobile interiors and parts, wire insulation and fire-resistant clothing.
Companies that use it have known since 2009 that Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL had pledged to stop making deca for most products at the end of this year, and for military and transportation uses by the end of 2013.
Chemical manufacturers already are marketing alternatives. But in comments filed in the EPA's rule-making docket, trade groups for several industries say they need more time to find acceptable replacements for deca.
"These provisions are extraordinary and would have a substantial impact on many manufacturers selling products in the U.S.," wrote Filipa Rio, senior manager of environmental affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group that represents a dozen major car companies. "It is infeasible to eliminate all ongoing uses in automobiles by Dec. 31, 2013, despite ongoing phaseout efforts."
Chicago-based Boeing Co. said it could take another decade to test and certify deca alternatives for aircraft interiors and parts. To bolster its case for exempting the aerospace industry from the EPA's proposed rules, the company submitted a slide presentation to White House officials with images of charred passenger planes.
Several companies and trade groups said it would be too difficult and costly for them to guarantee their parts and products are PBDE-free. The complaint reflects a reality of modern manufacturing: Many U.S. companies rely on suppliers from countries where environmental regulations are more lenient.
"Because articles typically do not come with an ingredients list, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain whether an article contains any one of the ... PBDEs," wrote Patricia Kablach Casano, a lawyer for General Electric Co.
The EPA said it is reviewing public comments before deciding what to do next. The agency declined to make anyone available to answer questions about the proposed rules, but in a prepared statement it said it targeted products made with PBDEs because they are by far the chief way that people are exposed to the chemicals.
In 2009, when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson first announced the administration's intent to restrict PBDEs, she said the rules were part of an aggressive attempt to minimize the health hazards posed by chemicals added to furniture, electronics, toys, cosmetics and household products.
"As more and more chemicals are found in our bodies and the environment, the public is understandably anxious and confused," Jackson said in a speech that year. "Many are turning to government for assurance that chemicals have been assessed using the best available science, and that unacceptable risks haven't been ignored."
But as in other fights about toxic chemicals, the PBDE rules have been delayed in part by disputes within the government. A White House office that acts as a gatekeeper for federal rules held up the proposal for more than a year. Now the Defense Department is urging the EPA to allow deca to remain on the market for another five years.
Pentagon officials cautioned that the push to eliminate deca could lead to "substitution regret" by replacing one chemical with others that could pose more serious hazards. "The EPA should more fully describe the potential risks from the alternatives to (deca) to ensure that the replacements are better for human health and the environment," the department wrote in its comments on the proposed rules.
The EPA released a draft assessment of potential deca alternatives in June, but the agency noted that chemical manufacturers haven't submitted key information for some of the compounds. Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, companies can sell chemicals without proving they are safe and treat the formulas as trade secrets.
"The PBDE rules get at the failure of the whole system," said the Environmental Defense Fund's Denison. "None of this would be happening if we had a sensible system in place to manage chemicals, provide regulatory certainty for companies and protect the public."
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