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Polybrominated Flame Retardants in the Environment and Food

The term "flame retardant" is used to describe a variety of organic and inorganic chemicals that – when utilized in specific products – have the property of reducing the flammability of those objects or delaying the spread of a fire. These are often used in the production of cases for electronic devices, circuit boards, cables, for coating the underside of carpets, for special textiles, insulating material, and expanding foam. Organic flame retardants not only include brominated com­pounds, but also organophosphorus compounds (with or without halogen), as well as chloroparaffins. The most commonly utilized inorganic flame retardants are aluminum hydroxide (AI(OH)3), magnesium hydroxide (Mg(OH)2), and antimony trioxide (Sb2O3).

The positive properties of flame retardants have to be measured against the properties that are hazardous to our health and environment, especially in the case of organic compounds containing halogen. These are classified as persistent in the environment and may demonstrate very mobile behavior. They accumulate in the environment and also within organisms (i.e. bioaccumulation), and some of them are considered toxic, carcinogenic, and/or damaging to reproduction. If there is a fire, corrosive or highly toxic gasses can be generated, or in the case of poly­brominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), it may also lead to the formation of poly­brominated dibenzo-p-dioxins and furans. However, not all compounds in the group of brominated flame retardants have a hazardous effect on the environment or our health. On the other hand, even some alternative compounds that are already in use, such as chloroparaffins or certain halogenated phosphorus compounds, can be harmful to the environment.

Tetrabromobishenol A (TBBPA) has been classified as non-toxic for humans, but toxic for aquatic organisms. The compound is very persistent in the environment and remains in the food chain even to the point of being detected in breast milk. Due to the catalytic effect of the copper contained in circuit boards, dioxins and furans can be generated if there is a fire or if the device is not properly disposed of. DecaBDE is very persistent, bioaccumulative, and furthermore, it is very mobile. Elevated concentrations can be detected in sediment samples near production facilities, but also at the top of the food chain in distant regions. It is not considered toxic to humans or the environment. However, even at low doses, neurological or endocrine effects cannot be completely ruled out with certainty. Presumably, it may decompose into less brominated compounds that are more toxic or bioaccumulating, such as PentaBDE and Octa BDE, which even today may neither be utilized nor sold in Europe. In this case as well, dioxins and furans can be generated if burned or disposed of improperly. Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) has similarly negative characteristics too. Furthermore, this has already been detected in fish, marine mammals, and birds of prey from the arctic region and therefore it was listed as a persistent organic pollutant (POP) according to the criteria of the European chemical regulations, REACH. In animal tests, it was shown that the development of embryos and infants was impaired by the influence of HBCD. Additionally, there is the suspicion that reproduction is also hindered. In humans, the compound has only been found in trace amounts, however this could also be due to the lack of adequate methods for testing the contamination in humans thus far.

Even if these groups of substances do not have acute toxic effects on humans, there is still the possibility of a harmful effect after a long period of time and over a long distance due to their widespread distribution and accumulative properties, if harmful concentration levels are exceeded. HBCD may continue to be used as before in the EU up until August 2015. However, according to the Stockholm-Convention, a worldwide ban on usage is planned as of November 2014. It is still unclear whether or not the substance may be used in insulating materials under these strict conditions after August 2015.

In March 2014, European Commission recommended that the EU member states should at first monitor the occurrence of brominated flame retardants in food products in 2014 and 2015. A wide spectrum of food products, aligned with consumer habits, should be integrated into the monitoring program, and different food products should be selected for different classes of brominated flame retardants. The analytical methods should at least be capable of obtaining a limit of quantification of 0.01 ng/g fresh weight for the PBDE and HBCD classes, and 0.1 ng/g fresh weight for the TBBPA and brominated phenols classes. Newly arising and new kinds of brominated flame retardants should be analyzed with a limit of quantification of 1 ng/g or better.

For years, the GBA Group has been analyzing flame retardants in all kinds of matrices as part of its portfolio, including a diverse range of isomers from various polybrominated diphenyl ethers, chloroparaffins, and organophosphorus compounds. In addition to analyzing traces in environmental matrices such as soil, water, sediment, and biota, we also can detect this substance group in electrical and electronic products such as circuit boards and cables. Additionally, we always follow the latest market developments in order to stand by your side providing you with expert advice and assistance.