Photo: Toxic flame retardants are a burning issue

Toxic chemicals are released into the environment during manufacturing and when products containing them are discarded. (Credit: localsurfer via Flickr.)

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are ubiquitous chemicals used as flame retardants in a wide-range of consumer products, including TVs, computers, electronics, motor vehicles, carpets, and furniture.

Health effects of PBDE exposure include damage to the neurological, reproductive, immune, and hormonal systems. The most widely used chemical in this group, decaBDE, is also a suspected carcinogen. These toxic chemicals are released into the environment during manufacturing and when products containing them are discarded. As products degrade, PBDE also end up in household dust, where they can be inhaled and ingested.

The discovery that PBDEs are rapidly accumulating in humans and the environment has raised serious concerns. Norway, the European Union, and several U.S. states have banned these chemicals for health and environmental reasons.

The move to ban PBDEs in Canada

Amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) in 1999 required the government to categorize and assess PBDEs and some other 23,000 "legacy" substances that predate modern environmental controls. PBDEs were among the first chemicals to be assessed for toxicity through this ongoing process.

Based on the assessment, Environment Canada announced new regulations in 2006 to ban the import of two out of three commercial PBDE mixtures. But the regulation failed to restrict the use of the third and most widely-used PBDE mixture, known as DecaBDE.

The David Suzuki Foundation and other groups filed a formal complaint to this approach in February 2007. Our Notice of Objection argued that the government's assessment of DecaBDE was outdated and called for a comprehensive ban.

The complaint, coupled with new science and widespread public concern about PBDEs, prompted Environment Canada to update its assessment of DecaBDE. Based on the findings of this scientific review, the government revised Canada's PBDE strategy, committing in August 2010 to a ban on all PBDEs in all consumer products.

While this comprehensive new PBDE strategy was a long time coming, it marks a significant step forward in Canada's approach to regulating toxic chemicals. CEPA regulations have traditionally targeted toxic substances that are manufactured in Canada, with little or no restrictions on imported products containing the chemicals. For example, other recent announcements from the federal government addressing toxics in consumer products have been narrowly focused on certain product-types, such as the ban on Bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and the proposal to ban a harmful chemical called phthalates in children's toys.

In a recent letter to Canada's environment minister, we expressed our hope that the lessons learned on PBDEs will translate into more effective regulation of other toxic chemicals.

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