California legislators voted July 17 to ban two flame retardants used in electronics plastic and polyurethane furniture foam, becoming the first state in the country to restrict the chemicals.
The state's decision mirrors a European Union move last year to restrict the same two flame retardants.
California officials are concerned that the chemicals build up in the bloodstream and may interfere with brain development, although industry officials argue that they are safe and reduce fire deaths.
The legislation bans two types of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, penta-BDE and octa-BDE, starting in 2008. But because it does not restrict a more widely used plastic flame retardant, deca-BDE, industry representatives officially were neutral on the legislation.
``We believe that this time frame allows for an orderly transition to alternative flame retardant technologies,'' said Anne Noonan, vice president of technology, marketing and advocacy for the flame retardants business at Great Lakes Chemical Corp. in West Lafayette, Ind. ``It will be difficult to meet 2008, but we're committed to making that happen.''
PU foam manufacturers are the biggest users of penta-DBE, she said. Great Lakes, the only U.S. maker of penta-DBE and octa-DBE, is marketing a phosphorous-based replacement.
Octa-DBE is used in electronics goods. Noonan said there are alternatives.
The legislation originally banned deca-DBE, but industry groups argued that there is no evidence that points to problems. Industry officials said the bill's sponsor, Assembly Majority Leader Wilma Chan, D-Oakland, was open to those arguments.
``There is a good deal of data which supports the view that deca represents little risk in terms of human health or the environment, while it provides tremendous benefits for fire safety,'' said Ray Dawson, director of fire safety and advocacy at Albemarle Corp. in Baton Rouge, La. Albemarle only makes deca.
All three PBDEs are being reviewed under the Environmental Protection Agency's children's health initiative. Deca-BDE received a tentative safety approval from an agency panel earlier this year.
The legislation passed the state Senate July 17, after a slightly different version passed the Assembly in May. Gov. Gray Davis' top environmental official endorsed it in early July.
While industry officials maintain that penta-BDE and octa-BDE are safe, California environmental officials said there are troubling warning signs.
``The levels that have been measured in women are beginning to approach the levels that have caused harm in laboratory animals,'' said Allan Hirsch, spokesman for the California EPA's office of environmental health hazard assessment.
The chemicals are very similar to PCBs, which have been banned, he said.
Chan's office said Swedish studies have found that levels of PDBEs in human breast milk have increased fortyfold since 1972, and breast tissue from San Francisco Bay Area women show some of the highest levels yet found.
It remains something of an open question how the PDBEs got into the environment. Penta-BDE is the most widespread, and some officials have speculated that discarded furniture foam contributes to that when it breaks down.
But Noonan said penta-BDE is widespread because it historically has had uses well beyond furniture foam, including as fluids in mining operations and oil field drilling.