Some people may think that chemicals have to be shown to be safe before they are used the products in our homes. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case and in this blog we will examine a chemical that is routinely used in sofas and which has been described as ‘inert’ by one company. Meanwhile, scientists have found that it contaminates polar bears in the Arctic, dust in our houses, and breast milk. Despite the EU REACH chemical regulatory system identifying it for further investigation in 2012, due to its similarity to another, now-banned chemical, there has been no EU regulatory action yet.
We are talking about a chemical that goes by a number of names, including Decabromo-diphenyl ethane, EBP, DBDPE and sometimes ‘the other Deca’ because of its similarity to another, now banned, brominated flame retardant ‘Deca-BDE’ – its CAS number is 84852-53-9; the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) page for DBDPE is here.
DBDPE is added to fabrics (e.g. in sofas) and plastics as a ‘flame retardant’ – a chemical that makes it harder for a material to burn. It is particularly extensively used in furniture in the UK and Ireland, countries which have very specific regulations on the flame retardancy of furniture, which end up promoting the use of flame retardant additives like DBDPE – for more details see this blog from FIDRA.
What is the problem with DBDPE?
The major problem is that DBDPE is Persistent (P, sticks around in the environment) and Bioaccumulates (B, accumulates in wildlife and humans).
The NGO ChemSec put it on their ‘Substitute it Now’ SIN list of chemicals that companies should avoid using in October 2014, because:
This substance has persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic properties. The substance has been detected in environmental samples from various parts of the world and in wildlife including birds, dolphins and pandas. It has also been detected in hair from humans, dogs and cats. Both experimental and estimated data show PBT [Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic] properties. It is used in textile, plastics and more as a flame retardant. It is used to replace the similar and more well known DecaBDE which is on the candidate list. The substance is vPvB [very Persistent and very Bioaccumulative] and toxic.
In 2013 a Norwegian Government Report in 2013 found that DBDPE was contaminating polar bears, ringed seals, glaucous gulls, common eider and kittiwakes. A 2016 report on Arctic pollution reported research on ice cores that showed that levels of DBDPE pollution were increasing. It’s also been found in captive pandas in China, and in faeces from wild howler monkeys in Costa Rica, and wild chimpanzees in Uganda.
Scientists in Ireland have found DBDPE pollution in air and dust of homes, offices and schools. They have also found it in breast milk samples taken in 2016-2018, but it was not found in an earlier equivalent study in 2011 (NB: scientists agree that breast milk remains the best option for the health of a baby, despite this). There are some indications that DBDPE may be an endocrine disrupter.
The UK Environment Agency published a study on the chemical back in 2007, which concluded that there were “concerns over bioaccumulation potential and the potential products of degradation processes that require further investigation“.
A regrettable substitution
One of the main reasons for the increase in use of DBDPE in recent years is the EU’s banning of most uses of decabrominated diphenyl ether (decaBDE). European Chemical Agency (ECHA) committees were working on the basis that DBDPE was likely to be used as a replacement for decaBDE, and that it might be a regrettable substitution, as is clear from from the report of ECHA’s Risk Assessment Committee (RAC) and Socioeconomic Assessment Committee (SEAC): [our emphasis]
- The RAC report, agreed in June 2015, states that EBP – another name for DBDPE – “is widely regarded to be the most feasible replacement from both a technical and an economic perspective. Concerns for this substance are related to potential PBT/vPvB properties similar to decaBDE (i.e. due to transformation) combined with evidence of long-range atmospheric transport. RAC supports that further exploration is made of this and other alternatives as regards their risk.“
- SEAC’s report, agreed in September 2015, accepts an analysis of substitution costs that assumes “EBP will be used to replace decaBDE in all applications (textiles + plastics)“
“Substance evaluation” – a route to action or inaction?
One of the REACH processes for taking action on problematic chemicals is the “Substance Evaluation” process, where “Member States evaluate substances .. to clarify whether their use poses a risk to human health or the environment. The objective is to request further information from the registrants of the substance to verify the suspected concern, if necessary.”. This process has become one of the main routes in REACH to provide the analysis needed for putting in place regulatory controls on hazardous chemicals, for example a Restriction on uses or designation as a ‘Substance of Very High Concern’.
DBDPE formally entered this substance evaluation process when it was incorporated in the Community Rolling Action plan published on the ECHA website on 29th February 2012.
The evaluation was originally done by the UK Health and Safety Executive, though as a result of Brexit the Swedish Chemical Agency KEMI took over. The evaluation has taken a long time, including delays due to legal challenges from producers of the chemical:
- A draft decision requesting more data was sent to registrants (the companies making or importing the chemicals) on 4th April 2013, with a final decision reached by Member State Committee on 6th February 2014 and formally adopted by ECHA on 22nd May as a request for more safety data, including on the potential for DBDPE to persist and bioaccumulate. A deadline was set of 29th November 2016 for this data to be delivered by the companies.
- On 22nd August 2014, Albemarle Europe SPRL, ICL-IP Europe and Chemical Inspection and Regulation Service in Ireland appealed to ECHA’s independent Board of Appeal (BoA), asking for the request for more data to be annulled. Part of their case was the claim that DBDPE does not have a structure that is similar to Decabromodiphenylethene (Deca-PBDE).
- ECHA’s independent Board of Appeal, in a decision on 12th July 2016, dismissed the appeal against providing information on persistence and accumulation, and set a new deadline of 19th January 2019 for the delivery of this data. The BoA also dismissed the appellants argument that DBDPE was not ‘structurally similar’ to decaBDE.
- The companies did not deliver the extra data by the deadline of 19th January 2019 – in fact the study was not delivered and added to the registration until 28th February 2021.
- There is now a 12 month legal deadline for KEMI to draft a decision based on this new data, i.e. 28th February 2022, exactly 10 years after the evaluation process started. As far as we are aware, no enforcement action has been taken against registrants for late delivery of data in this case.
Nine years on, and no regulatory action in the EU so far…
Meanwhile in Canada
The Canadian Government has concluded that “DBDPE is entering or may enter the environment at levels that are harmful to the environment”. A legal control is under development, though it has been delayed due to Covid 19 and it is planned to be published in winter 2021-22.
The industry has a different view….
H.C. Whitehead, a UK company that back-coats fabrics with flame retardants stated in their evidence to a UK parliamentary inquiry in 2019 that:
“we apply FR [Flame Retardant] systems via backcoating on to upholstery and currently use Decabromo-diphenyl ethane as the active FR component. This is a particularly inert chemical….
With regard to Decabromo-diphenyl ethane, there are no risk phrases shown on the MSDS [Material Safety Data Sheet]”
The vast majority of companies are indeed telling their customers that this chemical has no hazards, according to the EU’s classification and labelling inventory [as at 24th May 2021]. Just one notifier of the 618 who have submitted information classified it with any hazard at all, “H413: May cause long lasting harmful effects to aquatic life“.
Substance evaluation isn’t working
This chemical is still applied to furniture and other products, despite many years of evidence that it is accumulating in the environment. Every year of delay in controlling the use of DBDPE means many more tonnes in our homes and discharged into the environment. This should not be acceptable from an EU which is committed to ‘Zero Pollution’.
The Substance evaluation process is not effective, with too many opportunities for delay :
- Challenging any requests for new data gives the registrant a few extra years before they need to deliver safety data
- Dates to deliver data don’t seem to be enforced (are there any examples of successful enforcement?)
This creates a situation where No data = No problem.
Substance evaluation is not the only way in which Restrictions and other controls can be achieved in REACH, for example in the case of microplastics the European Commission asked ECHA to investigate a Restriction, while for PFAS a group Restriction is being developed covering a very large number of PFAS chemicals. A report by EEB in 2019 found that the substance evaluation process is very slow and even if the evaluation concludes that a substance is not safe then risk management measures are often not initiated. The substance evaluation process is not working.
The process of developing a Restriction on microplastics shows that REACH can act faster, when there is the will and resources. The European Commission asked ECHA to investigate a Restriction in 2017, ECHA published and then consulted on a draft proposal in 2019 and then ECHA committees of experts from Member States agreed this Restriction in 2020. The European Commission is now developing the legal text. This process started five years later than the examination of DBDPE, yet it is already way ahead.
Urgent action is needed to address this chemical and similar pollutants
The EU is currently starting to implement its new “Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability“, and in CHEM Trust’s view the failure to act on DBDPE is an indicator of what needs to be done to make sure REACH really works. Two key actions are needed now:
- The EU is currently preparing a “Restrictions roadmap” to accelerate controls on groups of chemicals with certain hazards, including persistence and bioaccumulation. There needs to be a group restriction on brominated chemicals in this roadmap, including – but not limited to – DBDPE. There are many other brominated compounds of concern, for example tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) which is one of the highest volume brominated flame retardants. CHEM Trust have nominated both TBBPA and DBDPE as priority substances for human biomonitoring. The Commission should ask ECHA to develop this restriction, bypassing the ineffective substance evaluation process.
- The European Commission is also developing a revision of the main EU chemicals law REACH. This is a chance to create a truly protective system that acts at speed to protect human health and the environment. This means more use of grouping to identify and control chemicals of concern, and an end to the ‘no data, no problem’ approach that we have seen in the DBDPE case.
Dr Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust, said:
“The European Commission must ask ECHA to develop a group restriction on brominated compounds, replacing the ineffective substance evaluation process on one chemical that is taking more than nine years for its first report. This system is ineffective and can be easily delayed by legal challenges from industry.
This chemical is contaminating the world and needs to be phased out now, but it mustn’t be replaced by another similar substance as happened with Deca-BDE, so a rapid group restriction is essential”