Better the devil you know?
7 April 2014. Dutch scientists purchased thirteen electronic consumer products with plastic casing and analyzed the plastic for its content of brominated flame retardants. The purpose was to find out whether these products contain alternative flame retardants after the brain-toxic polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were banned or phased out in Europe and the US five or more years ago. They do!
Eight of the products contained 2,4,6-tris(2,4,6-tribromophenoxy)-1,3,5-triazine, among chemists known as TTBP-TAZ. The highest concentration found was close to 2%. Moreover, the researchers also analyzed house dust from nine different residences. All of the homes had TTBP-TAZ in the dust, although at trace levels lower than those typical for the PBDEs. So is it good news that the PBDEs are being phased out and substituted by other chemicals?
Not necessarily. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report on possible alternatives to previously used flame retardants concluded that TTBP-TAZ has a high potential for bioaccumulation and very high for persistence in the environment. The toxicity potential is thought to be low, although on the basis of very limited information. In an evaluation of emerging and novel flame retardants, the European Food Safety Authority most frequently used the following words “No information could be identified” about this flame retardant. Other poorly characterized alternatives have also been marketed.
A recent study of children’s furniture found a variety of flame retardants in the products. The one most frequently encountered (in 22 of 42 products) is thought to cause endocrine disruption and may well be neurotoxic as well. As the authors say: “fire safety scientists say that these harmful, toxic flame retardant chemicals are not effective in reducing fire risks as they are used in children’s (or adult) furniture.” So the new alternatives do not even fulfill the original purpose of adding them to the plastics materials. There may even be hidden dangers.
The problem of alternatives and substitutes having no or limited toxicity information has frequently emerged. For example, when endocrine disrupting BPA was phased out of baby bottles, new products appeared on the market that claimed to be BPA-free and safe. The former was correct, but the latter not. Estrogenic substances are released also from plastics that claim to be without BPA. So we may not be better off, at least not yet.
As the saying goes, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. We can’t be sure that TTBP-TAZ is any safer than the PBDEs. They may all be devils and thus should be eliminated.