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Discussions Expand on the Threat Fire Safety Chemicals Pose to Public Health

At a conference on 8 September, an alliance of stakeholders representing environmental NGOs, firefighters, cancer organisations and equipment makers warned against the use of flame retardants in products. Their remarks contribute to the growing wave of concern over the chemicals’ possible links to cancer and other health problems. Hong Kong’s suppliers of products containing flame retardants should be aware of the mounting pressure on the EU and its Member States to further restrict their use.

Flame retardants are chemicals that are added to a wide variety of materials, such as plastics, textiles and electronic equipment, to make them less flammable. While they improve fire safety standards, experts now say these chemicals could cause more harm than good. Particular concern has been expressed over the use of brominated flame retardants (BFRs), namely, the type commonly found in the material and foam used to make couches, chairs and other household furniture, as well as electrical products. Certain types of these retardants have already been listed as endocrine disruptors or banned at the EU level, under the REACH Regulation.

Dr. Lisette van Vilet, Senior Policy Officer at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a public health NGO, who presented her views at the conference, said that the use of these flame retardants was linked to cancer, fertility problems, problems in children’s development (IQ, coordination, birth weight) and had negative effects on humans’ metabolism and immune system. She stressed that given the persistence of flame retardants and their “ability to get into our bodies, it [was] important to eliminate them and achieve fire safety in more effective, less polluting ways”.

Dr. van Vilet’s comments reflect those expressed by experts in a policy paper warning that long-term exposure to flame retardants in home and office furniture and products is potentially harmful, especially because exposure to the chemicals is not limited to direct contact. In fact, the paper highlights that the potentially harmful chemicals are not bound to the material and as a consequence “are released through normal use and settle into dust.” Other studies have also shown that humans may expose themselves to the harmful effects of flame retardants through ingestion. In particular, it is believed that flame retardant-treated products, whether in use or in waste, can leach harmful chemicals into the environment, and subsequently enter the food chain, contaminating food of animal origin such as fish and dairy products.

At the conference, firefighters were identified as being at particular risk of exposing themselves to the harmful effects of flame retardants by inhalation because they regularly come into contact with toxic fumes from burning plastics. Mikael Svanberg, from the European Fire Fighter Unions Alliance (EFFUA), warned that there was real concern that the presence of flame retardants in products has contributed to the increased risk of cancer for firefighters. He recommended that fire safety be achieved in other ways, for example, through the use of smoke detectors and sprinklers.

Children were also singled out, at the conference, as a particularly vulnerable group because of their lower tolerance to chemicals and the fact that they crawl around and come into contact with dust more frequently than adults. Reflecting these concerns, Denmark’s Environment and Food Minister, Esben Lunde Larsen, recently stated he would propose an EU ban on the use of three types of flame retardant- TCEP, TDCP and TCPP - in products with which children frequently come into contact. His announcement comes after a Danish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study provided a comprehensive review of the market distribution of the same three potentially carcinogenic flame retardants in children’s articles. (See, also, Denmark Assesses Chlorinated Phosphorous-based Flame Retardants in Articles Intended for Children).

Hong Kong traders may be interested to know that while flame retardants have already been banned in several toy products by the EU, the Danish Minister now wants the EU ban to be more expansive in order to cover products such as car seats, baby slings, prams and carrying straps for children. If the ban comes into effect, Hong Kong traders selling such articles in the EU will need to ensure that their products do not contain TCEP, TDCP or TCPP. However, before the ban can be imposed, it must first be established by the EU that the health and economic consequences of each of those three flame retardants have been sufficiently determined. In particular, studies and research will need to be put forward that prove they pose a risk to public health, which can often end up being a very time-consuming and lengthy process.

Nevertheless, in an attempt to overcome such obstacles in future, the Danish EPA has recently commissioned a project exploring the possibility of addressing BFRs “by a grouping approach” for the purposes of regulation, rather than treating them as individual substances. Given that brominated flame retardants have similar chemical structures, the project’s report ultimately supports the possibility of “reading across” the same dangerous carcinogenic, mutagenic and genotoxic effects identified in three types of BFRs and associating them with another fifty eight types. The results could potentially allow authorities to avoid the burdensome step of individually evaluating the consequences of each BFR. Nevertheless, the report concludes that, in light of the lack of experimental data currently available, an even more robust research basis should be pursued before regulators can start “reading across” the harmful effects of one BFR to all BFRs belonging to the same group.

At present, EU Member States are able to impose different flammability standards on products. However, as previously noted by the Danish Environment and Food minister, when it comes to regulating problematic chemicals, the EU regulatory process is often a Member State’s preferred port of call. This is because many of the goods sold within its market are produced abroad, so the best way for a Member State to protect its consumers is by helping to create harmonised EU rules.

In respect of his proposal on children’s articles containing flame retardants, Minister Lunde Larsen said “[w]e’ll get a better effect if we get a complete EU ban on the three flame retardants.” Should that proposal fail, Hong Kong traders should be aware that the Minister may nevertheless propose to impose the ban within the Danish market.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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