PBDE's – how do they get here?

PBDE’s are a total mystery – from how they make their way in to the Spokane River and why such high rates here.  Now comes this mystery, studies show they are decreasing.  Good news indeed, but questions still remain.

Studies show drop in local fish toxin - story from The Spokesman-Review on March 23, 2011.

Spokane river as it flows passed Canada Island...

Image via Wikipedia

In 2004 a Washington State Department of Ecology study found that fish in the Spokane River had the highest concentrations of toxic flame retardants of any freshwater fish in Washington state.   Last week Ecology announced that concentrations of toxic flame retardants called PBDEs in fish tissues from the Spokane River may actually be dropping.  In addition, osprey eggs collected along the Spokane River in 2009 all contained PBDEs, but the amount was generally too low to harm the reproductive success of ospreys.
PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are chemicals used in electronics, plastics, building materials and textiles that build up in fish tissue and in the human body, including the breast milk of nursing mothers. They can cause neurological damage in babies.  (EPA report – An Exposure Assessment of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers)

The recent news from Ecology comes as a result of studies  done cooperatively by the Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Geological Survey.  The studies, show flame retardant levels in fish tissue dropping by as much as 50 percent between 2005 and 2009. Scientists also studied the eggs of osprey, a fish-eating raptor, because flame retardants accumulate in fat and move up the food chain.

While this news is welcoming, a larger question remains which is where are PBDE’s coming from and how are they getting in to the Spokane River.  The questions were raised in 2005 when Ecology’s first study was released, and the same questions followed last week’s release.   According to the Spokesman piece, “Ecology officials are testing stormwater to learn more about how PBDEs are getting into the river. The ubiquitous compounds are found in house dust, sewer sludge and treated wastewater.  “We joke that somebody in Spokane is throwing couches into the river,” said Jani Gilbert, an Ecology spokeswoman.

Decabromodiphenylethane (flame retardant)

Image via Wikipedia

Joking aside, this is a serious question that needs delving in to.  PBDE’s are wildly used in North America.  The highest levels of PBDEs have been found in the U.S. and Canada and are more than 10 times higher than those found in Europe.  According to Ecology’s Water Resources department:

“There are three main types of PBDEs used in consumer products: Penta-BDE, Octa-BDE and Deca-BDE. Each of these types of PBDEs has different uses and different toxicity. Manufacturers of Penta-BDE and Octa-BDE agreed to voluntarily stop producing these two forms of PBDEs by the end of 2004. In 2009, three major producers of Deca-BDE arrived at an agreement with U.S. EPA to stop producing, importing, and selling Deca-BDE by the end of 2012.”

PBDE Law
Washington’s PBDE Law (RCW 70.76) placed several restrictions on the use of PBDEs. Under this law:

  • Effective January 1, 2008, no person may manufacture, knowingly sell, or distribute for in-state use products containing PBDEs. Several types of products are exempted from this prohibition, including transportation equipment, medical devices, and certain recycled materials. Additionally, deca-BDE is handled differently under the law.
  • Deca-BDE is prohibited in mattresses effective January 1st, 2008.
  • Effective January 1st, 2011, Deca-BDE is also prohibited in televisions, computers, and residential upholstered furniture. Before this prohibition could take effect, the law required Ecology and the Department of Health to identify that a safer and technically feasible alternative is available that meets fire safety standards. See the report, “Alternatives to Deca-BDE in Televisions and Computers and Residential Upholstered Furniture” for more information.
  • Click here for de minimis guidance regarding the Department of Ecology’s implementation of the requirements of the PBDE law.

PBDE CAP
The PBDE Law resulted from the Chemical Action Plan for PBDEs published in January 2006.

I guess in conclusion I don’t want to bum people out with the unsightly facts about PBDE’s and the reality that no one knows how the heck these nasty chemicals are making their way in to our Spokane River at such alarming rates, but the fact remains.  Like PCB’s, PBDE’s are a HUGE concern for animal and human health.  But unlike PCB’s, PBDE’s aren’t considered a water quality threat by official standards because not enough is known about them.  So while you might hear our rallying cry for a PCB TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load), we aren’t able to say the same thing about PBDE’s.   PBDE’s are a new pollutant, a modern pollutant if you will, so until more is known about them all we can do is trust in Ecology’s effort to study and test them and hope more good news like this current news keeps coming out.

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