The manufacturer of furniture flame retardants, which are accumulating in human bodies and wildlife, announced Monday that it would voluntarily stop producing the chemicals by the end of 2004.
Great Lakes Chemical Corp., based in Indianapolis, had been under pressure for several months by scientists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which had asked the company to phase out penta and octa PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers.
Environmental scientists say the flame retardants, used mostly in polyurethane foam furniture, are doubling in concentration in the breast milk of U.S. women every few years and have been shown in animal tests to disrupt development of newborns' brains.
Mark P. Bulriss, chief executive officer of Great Lakes Chemical, on Monday denied any risk from its flame retardants and called them "both safe and effective." But he said the company had developed "a new generation of flame retardants" and would work with foam manufacturers to "transition away from penta PBDE in an orderly manner." Great Lakes is the only manufacturer of penta.
The company also announced that it would stop producing octa, used as a flame retardant in the plastics of computers and small appliances, by the end of next year. Other U.S. chemical companies produce octa, and EPA officials said they would work with them to phase it out.
Stephen L. Johnson, EPA's acting deputy administrator, called Great Lakes' decision "a responsible action that is likely to result in reduced amounts of these chemicals in the environment."
Some environmental scientists have warned that PBDEs probably would continue to contaminate people and animals for years, perhaps decades, because they remain in upholstered furniture and other consumer products. But EPA officials said Monday they did not believe there was a need to remove or replace the products.
Much of the pressure on Great Lakes came from California, which recently passed a law that banned products containing penta and octa in 2008. The flame retardants, used by industry for more than 20 years, have been phased out in Europe and are used only in North America. Under U.S. law, banning a chemical takes years of risk studies, so the EPA worked with Great Lakes for a voluntary phaseout instead.
Penta is used mostly in furniture sold in California, which has the nation's most stringent furniture flammability standards. It slows the rate that flames spread in foam cushions.
Toxicologists say penta is the most worrisome chemical in commerce, comparing it to PCBs, banned three decades ago. No one knows how it gets in human bodies, but they speculate that it is consumed in fish from contaminated waters or inhaled with dust contaminated by gases coming off household and office furnishings. Penta, which apparently spreads globally via the air, has been found as far away as polar bears near the North Pole.
EPA officials say preliminary tests on Great Lakes' new compound, which contains a brominated compound but no PBDEs, show it is not persistent, does not accumulate in wildlife and has low toxicity to aquatic life. But the EPA says it will require more tests. Foam manufacturers worry about the effectiveness of alternatives, although they are optimistic.
Bobby Bush, vice president of Hickory Springs Manufacturing Co., the nation's largest producer of furniture foam, said the new Great Lakes compound "can work successfully, especially in colder weather," but that it remained problematic in hot weather, when it scorches and discolors foam.
He hopes such obstacles will be overcome by summer, and that other companies will develop flame retardants with no brominated compounds.
Scientific studies in Europe showed in 1998 that PBDEs were building up in breast milk. Bush said the chemical company acted too slowly to test the chemicals and phase them out, and failed to warn U.S. manufacturers.
"Great Lakes could have been better prepared by pushing toxicity and similar studies years ago," Bush said.
Attention will now turn to another flame retardant, deca PBDE, used worldwide in televisions and other electronics in volumes far greater than penta and octa. Deca does not accumulate in bodies as readily as the two that are being phased out, but it has been found in low levels in breast milk. The European Union is considering banning it.