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Commission urges action on toxic flame retardant in Great Lakes region

People enjoy a warm autumn day along Lake Superior near Split Rock Lighthouse. The International Joint Commission on Wednesday advised the governments of Canada and the United States to take strong action on toxic flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers that have accumulated across the Great Lakes. (File photo by Jan Swart)

The International Joint Commission on Wednesday advised the governments of Canada and the United States to take strong action on toxic flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers that have accumulated across the Great Lakes.

The flame retardants have been used for decades in products to reduce the risk of fire and now have accumulated in the Great Lakes at levels that could be harmful to human health, the IJC notes.

PBDEs are present in the sediment, water and air of all five Great Lakes — although lakes Huron and Erie have the highest levels — and the chemicals show up in people and wildlife who live near the lakes.

While some governments have taken or are taking action to ban some of the related chemicals, they have been widely used in a potpourri of commercial and consumer products, electronic devices, appliances, carpets, mattresses and furniture. Not only did PBDEs escape into the environment as they were manufactured and used in the products, but now they are leaking into the environment as those products are being thrown away or recycled — a legacy problem that will linger far beyond the life of products.

"Governments should no longer consider only control of pollutants as they are generated. Instead, the full product life cycle, from initial design to final disposal, must be considered and controlled," the IJC report recommends. "PBDEs illustrate the problems that are created when the environmental fate of a chemical product is either not anticipated or externalized to society at large."

The report says PBDEs are a concern because they are persistent — they never break down — and bioaccumulate up the food chain, toxic to both humans and the environment. Health effects in humans possibly associated with PBDE exposure relate primarily to thyroid disorders, reproductive health, cancers and neurobehavioral and developmental disorders. Adverse impacts on wildlife include increased mortality rates, malformations, and thyroid system and metabolic impairment, the report notes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says PBDEs may act as endocrine disruptors in humans and other animals. Exposure in rats and mice caused "neuro-developmental toxicity" and other symptoms. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that the chemicals are reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.

"The IJC is now recommending a coordinated, binational strategy to be implemented by the end of 2017 to reduce the presence of this toxic pollutant," said Gordon Walker, Canadian chair of the IJC, in a statement on the recommendations.

Lana Pollack, U.S. chair on the IJC, said a sustained effort is needed by governments, industry and citizens to rid the lakes of PBDEs.

"To keep these toxins out of the lakes and protect human health we have to control the full life cycle of these products, from initial design to final disposal," she said.

The report recommends that federal, state and provincial governments address polybrominated diphenyl ethers in the Great Lakes by:

• Developing a binational strategy by the end of 2017 to reduce PBDE levels in the Great Lakes;

• Imposing restrictions on the manufacture, use and sale of PBDEs and PBDE‑containing products throughout the region;

• Developing a plan for reducing and eliminating potential releases of PBDEs in products during the recycling and disposal stages;

• Helping industries develop methods to assess PBDE substitutes and encouraging use of alternative methods for addressing flammability; and

• Increase monitoring for PBDEs in the environment to see if and when they begin to diminish.

The National Institutes of Health has already called for federal action to regulate PBDEs.

"The flame retardant industry argues that the benefits accrued through saving lives by fire prevention outweigh the costs incurred by any medical consequences," the institute notes on its PBDE web page. "Over time however, this cost/benefit ratio is likely to shift. In the meantime, it is imperative that a more aggressive approach be taken to circumvent or regulate their use."

The sale of products with pentaPBDE and octaPBDE were banned in Minnesota in 2007, said Cathy O'Dell, contaminants of emerging concern coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

A third type, decaBDE, is mostly unregulated on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes, the IJC notes, but Minnesota passed a law in 2015 regulating deca-BDE set to begin in 2018. The law prohibits manufacture and sale of deca-BDE specifically for use in children's products and residential upholstered furniture, and also prohibits manufacturer substitution of chemicals for deca-BDE that are known to, or suspected of, causing certain health effects.

While it largely being eliminated from new products "the amount of it that is in our waste stream, that's the big issue going forward," Odell said.

The IJC was established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to resolve border water disputes and issues between the U.S. and Canada. The IJC's responsibilities also include overseeing the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

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