New standards, public education, and extended producer responsibility programs are key to protecting Great Lakes from PBDEs and other flame-retardant chemicals, according to IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board
In its second report on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in the Great Lakes, the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) recommends several actions the Governments of Canada and the United States should take to address challenges in seeking safer alternatives to the use of PBDEs and other toxic chemicals as flame retardants. The role of extended producer responsibility programs is also considered as a method to avoid the release of PBDEs during production, use, recycling and disposal of products.
PBDEs, a class of flame retardants widely used since the 1970s, have been found in the Great Lakes at levels that could be harmful to human health and wildlife. Present in a wide range of commercial and consumer products, such as electronic devices, appliances, carpets, mattresses and furniture, PBDEs are a concern because they are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment. Adverse impacts on wildlife include increased mortality rates, malformations, and thyroid system and metabolic impairment. Health effects in humans possibly associated with PBDE exposure relate primarily to thyroid disorders, reproductive health, cancers and neurobehavioral and developmental disorders.
Over the past two decades Canada and the United States have phased out the manufacture and import of some PBDE chemicals and developed strategies to reduce their levels in the environment. This has been somewhat successful, since it is correlated with declining concentrations of PBDEs in the Great Lakes environment. However, residual PBDE flame retardants are still present throughout the Great Lakes basin in a vast array of products and at levels that are still higher than suitable to protect human and wildlife health. Some flame retardants that have been used after PBDEs were banned are now building up in the environment and are proving to be toxic. Recognizing that the job is not completed, the Canadian and US governments designated PBDEs as a Chemical of Mutual Concern (CMC) in May 2016 under Annex 3 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
The use of products containing PBDEs and end-of-product-life actions related to these products can be an ongoing source of PBDE contamination to the Great Lakes environment. Likewise, flame retardants used as substitutes for PBDEs may prove to be toxic and may become new sources of contaminants to the Great Lakes. Thus, the WQB recommends several actions to eliminate inputs of PBDEs and other toxic flame retardants into the Great Lakes environment:
- Governments at all levels should integrate decisions around product flammability-protection requirements and toxicity standards for flame retardants used in products and combine these with redesign options to ensure protection from flammability and reduce contamination of the environment.
- The IJC should develop a binational multi-stakeholder-led trial run to test this approach to initiate a new approach to regulatory development that integrates the creation of standards for product flammability, toxicity and the use of re-design options.
- Public education is essential to expand consumer awareness of the presence of PBDEs in products, the issues with PBDE-containing products in use in their homes, and how they can reduce the associated risks.
- Governments and industry should complete research to increase understanding of the implications of different recycling and disposal methods for products containing PBDEs and other toxic flame retardant chemicals used as a result of bans on PBDEs, such as organophosphate esters (OPEs), which are now found in elevated levels in the Great Lakes basin and are also classified as persistent organic pollutants.
- Industry should work with a full range of stakeholders, including governments, to develop an extended producer responsibility (EPR) program that creates proper recycling and disposal options for flame retardant-containing products. This could become a model for EPR programs for other toxics-containing products.