Hawaii May Be First to Ban Toxic Fire Retardant

HONOLULU (AP) -- Hawaii would become the first state in the nation to ban flame-retardant chemicals, known to accumulate in the blood of mothers and nursing babies, under a bill moving toward approval in the Legislature.

House and Senate Conferees are looking to finalize the bill on Friday to ban products such as clothing, sleepwear, furniture, electronics, plastic and foam that are coated with polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

California was the first state to institute a ban last year, but it doesn't take effect until Jan. 1, 2008. Hawaii's ban would take effect Jan. 1, 2006.

The scientific jury is still out on whether PBDEs are a health risk, but some scientists believe flame retardants may become as ubiquitous in the marine environment as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a hazardous compound once widely used in industrial coolants and lubricants that has been banned in the United States since the 1970s.

Environmentalists began advocating the ban of PBDEs more than two years ago. One form of the chemical was banned last year in Europe, where the law requires proof of safety before a new agent can be used in the environment. U.S. law requires proof of harm or risk before a chemical is banned.

In response to California's law, manufacturers said they needed time to find alternatives to the chemicals. An industry lobbying organization, Bromine +Science+ and Environmental Forum, told Hawaii lawmakers the only manufacturer of the fire retardants named in the Hawaii bill plans to phase out sales by the end of this year.

Great Lakes Chemical Corp., of West Lafayette, Ind., in an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency, volunteered in November to stop making the PBDE fire retardant chemicals Penta and Octa and quickly shift to safer alternatives.

Rep. Hermina Morita, D-Hanalei-Kapaa, Chairwoman of the Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, said Hawaii's move to ban the fire retardant chemical is part of a national effort.

``It would be real difficult for Hawaii to act on its own because our market is so small,'' she said.

Morita said the Hawaii measure lacks any enforcement provisions, ``so mainly this bill is to bring awareness'' to the products already in the hands of consumers.

Studies show North American women have the highest levels of the PBDE chemicals in the world, nearing levels shown to damage memory, behavior and learning in laboratory mice.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said while there is no definite information on health effects in people, rats and mice that ate food with moderate amounts of PBDEs for a few days showed effects on the thyroid gland.

``Those that ate smaller amounts for weeks or months had effects on the thyroid and the liver,'' the agency said. ``Preliminary evidence suggests that PBDEs may cause neurobehavioral alternations and affect the immune system in animals.''

California researchers found Bay Area women have three to 10 times greater amounts of the chemical in their breast tissue than either European or Japanese women. A study by Indiana University researchers found levels in Indiana and California women and infants 20 times higher than in Sweden and Norway.

The chemicals remain in the environment for years and build up in the body over a lifetime, similar to PCBs and DDT, which was banned decades ago in the United States.