BALTIMORE – Advocacy groups gathered Thursday at a day care center to support a proposed statewide ban on a chemical flame-retardant, even though scientists disagree on the safest course for handling the product.
The Maryland General Assembly is considering Senate Bill 184 to ban Deca-BDE, which has been used as a fire-safe backing in furniture fabrics and on electronic components. The substance deteriorates over time into household dust that can be inhaled or make its way into food.
A recent investigation by the Environmental Working Group found that toddlers have Deca-BDE blood levels three times the rate of their parents. Studies on rats have revealed disruption of reproductive and neurological systems at high levels of exposure.
Baltimore City Deputy Chief Fire Marshall Raymond C. O’Brocki III supported the ban, despite the seeming contradiction of a firefighter opposing a flame retardant.
The chemical burns with a black smoke that reduces visibility and the substance permeates firefighters’ protective equipment, O’Brocki said.
“Studies have shown that when Deca burns, it releases highly toxic and corrosive chemicals,” he said.
Bill Pitcher, attorney for the Citizens for Fire Safety Coalition, disagrees.
“They can’t prove that it’s hurting humans, but we can prove that it’s saving lives,” Pitcher said.
Susan Shaw, chief scientist at the Marine Environmental Research Institute, is concerned that the bioaccumulative effect of Deca-BDE is greater than previously thought.
Her research, to be published this month in “The Science of the Total Environment,” found that Deca-BDE was detected in harbor seals at measurable levels, which indicates the chemical is making its way up the food chain.
Ray Dawson, chemist and director of product advocacy for the world’s largest supplier of flame retardants, Albemarle Corp., said the company wants lawmakers to be cautious about banning a product with so much science behind it. He said it may be safer than the less tested alternatives.
A study to be published later this month found Deca-BDE produced no neurotoxic effects, Dawson said. The independent study was conducted on a large number of rat litters at very high doses fed directly to pregnant females.
“Hopefully this will give some assurance that Deca is not a harmful substance,” Dawson said.
The European Union’s ban on Deca-BDE is misunderstood, Dawson said, and should not serve as a legislative example. The European Court of Justice’s April 2008 decision to reinstate a ban on Deca-BDE was the result of procedural errors when the ban was lifted, not because of science, he said.
In 2007, the Washington State Legislature prohibited the manufacture, sale or distribution of products containing Deca-BDE. That law was delayed until safer alternatives were identified. It’s now to take effect in 2011, after an environmental report to the legislature identified options.
Maine is the only other state to have enacted a ban, though the Illinois legislature considered a similar bill.
Brenda M. Azfal, a director at the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland’s School of Nursing, has decided to support a state Deca-BDE ban.
“The levels in the U.S. are rising. They are doubling every 5 years,” Azfal said. “In the absence of a national chemical policy that protects citizens of Maryland, I believe legislators need to act.”
Azfal’s mother was severely burned, so she is looking at the issue from both a fire safety and an environmental protection viewpoint.
Earlier variations of BDEs were voluntarily removed from manufacturing, and the same is happening with Deca-BDE. Apple, Sony, and IKEA no longer use it, said Fielding Huseth of the Maryland Public Research Interest Group.
“To our knowledge it is almost not used at all in the residential furniture industry,” said Patricia Bowling, the vice-president of communications for the American Home Furnishings Alliance.
This voluntary action is too little and is taking too long for those concerned that the long-term accumulations of Deca-BDE are too dangerous to wait.
“It’s in everything,” said Elizabeth Riddlington, holding her 2-month-old son. “It’s in the couch that I sit on to feed him and in the computer I use to send photos to his grandparents . . . I can’t protect him from Deca.”