Environmental Health & Safety

EPA Targets Flame Retardants DecaBDE and BPA

Agency has determined several safer alternatives to using the two chemicals

By Lynn Bergeson, regulatory editor

On January 29, 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released two final Alternatives Assessment Reports for the flame retardant decabromodiphenyl ether (DecaBDE) and bisphenol A (BPA) in thermal paper. The EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) program developed the assessments, which profile the environmental and human health hazards for DecaBDE, BPA, and their alternatives. This article explains why these assessments are important.

Reformulating products can diminish a manufacturer’s potential product and tort liability.

DfE, a federal EPA program started in 1992, works to prevent pollution and its health and environmental risks. The program provides information regarding a range of product categories, including electronics, flame retardants and safer chemical formulations.

The DfE has three main goals: promoting green cleaning and recognizing safer consumer and industrial products through safer labeling; defining best practices; and identifying safer chemicals, taking into account life cycle considerations, through alternative assessments. Under the DfE program, products meeting EPA’s criteria are able to label their products as “DfE,” an increasingly recognized symbol of product safety. Over 2,700 products carry the EPA DfE brand.

DecaBDE is a flame retardant that has been used in electronics, vehicles, textiles and building materials. U.S. manufacturers of DecaBDE committed to phase-out production of the chemical by December 2013. The final DfE Alternatives Assessment Report on DecaBDE profiles 29 alternatives, including some predicted to be safer than DecaBDE. This report is part of a broader agency effort to address flame retardant chemicals. Additional information can be found at www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/projects/decaBDE/about.htm.

The safety of BPA has drawn much attention over the years. BPA is widely used as a building block for plastics and to develop images on thermal paper, which is used in printed retail receipts, and in many other applications, such as airline and movie tickets.  The EPA’s final BPA DfE Alternatives Assessment includes a review of 19 chemicals that may be used as heat-activated “developers” in thermal paper. The assessment found trade-offs with respect to human health or environmental safety for all of the possible alternatives. Information on this report can be found at www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/projects/bpa/about.htm.

Consumers are increasingly aware of chemical exposures and the impact such exposures may have on their health and on the environment. The commercial push we have witnessed over the past decade for “greener” and “safer” products reflects these growing market realities. Product manufacturers, particularly consumer product makers, are increasingly challenged to reformulate their product compositions to deselect components believed to pose risk and replace them with ingredients believed to be safer, and to manufacture their products using environmentally prudent production methods.

Some product manufacturers may find this trend unsettling and challenging. The ability to reformulate products is not in all cases assured, and even if it were, product reformulation is costly and can be commercially risky. This is especially true for product ingredients that offer unique or highly specific properties or functionalities that have been specifically designed to work in concert with other product ingredients.

Other product manufacturers choose to focus on the commercial upside. An EPA determination that a particular chemical poses risks, that there are alternatives to that chemical, and the EPA has found those alternatives to be efficacious and less harmful offer appealing and significant commercial opportunities. This is a key reason the DfE program is believed by many to offer considerable value to product manufacturers.  EPA’s determination that alternatives to a particular chemical ingredient exist and are safer provides a comforting and commercially promising basis upon which to make product reformulation decisions.

Other pressures driving product manufacturers to reformulate products include potential product liability and tort claims related to the products they offer to the public. Reformulating products and selecting the safest product ingredients possible, while still providing product efficacy and performance, increasingly is the option of choice to diminish a manufacturer’s potential product and tort liability.

For more information on EPA’s DfE program, visit www.epa.gov/dfe/.

bergeson-color.jpgLYNN BERGESON is Chemical Processing's Regulatory Editor. You can e-mail her at lbergeson@putman.net

Lynn is managing director of Bergeson & Campbell, P.C., a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that concentrates on conventional, biobased, and nanoscale chemical industry issues. She served as chair of the American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (2005-2006).