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International group urges U.S. and Canada to cut flame retardants in Great Lakes

Dec 1, 2016

The International Joint Commission (IJC) says the U.S. and Canada should create a strategy to reduce toxic chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in the Great Lakes. This comes from a new IJC report released Wednesday.

"The PBDEs polluting our Great Lakes are toxic substances of great concern," says the Canadian Section's IJC chair Gordon Walker in a press release

PBDEs are flame retardants that are common in electronic devices, appliances, carpets, and furniture. Studies have associated the chemicals with health effects including thyroid disorders, reproductive health problems, cancers and neurobehavioral and developmental disorders. 

The report says PBDEs can enter the environment through surface water in two ways. First, when products containing PBDEs are sent to landfills which produce leachate, the leachate can be discharged into surface water. They can also be released in industrial wastewater.

"It will take sustained efforts from governments, industry and citizens to rid the lakes of these substances," U.S. Section IJC chair Lana Pollack says in the release. "We have to control the full life cycle of these products, from initial design to final disposal."

More from the press release:

Although production of various PBDEs has been banned or is being phased out, residual PBDE flame retardants are still present throughout the Great Lakes basin in a vast array of products. PBDEs were designated by the governments of Canada and the United States as a Chemical of Mutual Concern (CMC) in May 2016 under Annex 3 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

The report recommends how federal, state and provincial governments can address PBDEs in the Great Lakes:

  • Developing and implementing a binational strategy to reduce PBDEs to the Great Lakes before the end of 2017;
  • Applying equally effective restrictions on the manufacture, use and sale of PBDEs and PBDE‑containing products throughout the basin;
  • Developing a plan for reducing and eliminating potential releases of PBDEs in products during the recycling and disposal stages;
  • Guiding industry on methods to assess PBDE substitutes and encouraging use of alternative methods for addressing flammability;
  • Increasing monitoring of PBDEs in the environment in order to assess the effectiveness of policies aimed at reducing their presence.

Michigan Radio's Rebecca Williams has previously reported on PBDEs in the Great Lakes and how the IJC wants the toxic chemicals managed.