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Polybrominated Diphenyl ethers in the Great Lakes


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December 8, 2016 by John Nicholson

The International Joint Commission (IJC) recently released a strategy report on reducing the risks to human health and the environment from the fire retardant polybrominated diphenyls (PBDEs).

PBDEs have been used as a flame retardant since the 1970s and have also been found in the Great Lakes at levels that could be harmful to human health. Present in a wide range of commercial and consumer products, such as electronic devices, appliances, carpets, mattresses and furniture, PBDEs are a concern because they are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment. Adverse impacts on wildlife include increased mortality rates, malformations, and thyroid system and metabolic impairment.  Health effects in humans possibly associated with PBDE exposure relate primarily to thyroid disorders, reproductive health, cancers and neurobehavioral and developmental disorders.

PBDE

PBDE

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 PBDEs polluting our Great Lakes are toxic substances of great concern,” said Gordon Walker, chair of the IJC’s Canadian Section.  “The IJC is now recommending a coordinated, binational strategy to be implemented by the end of 2017 to reduce the presence of this toxic pollutant.”

“It will take sustained efforts from governments, industry and citizens to rid the lakes of these substances,” said Lana Pollack, chair of the IJC’s US Section.  “To keep these toxins out of the lakes and protect human health we have to control the full life cycle of these products, from initial design to final disposal.”

The IJC’s recommendations in the report are based on the work of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, principal advisor to the IJC under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.  The report recommends that federal, state and provincial governments address polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in the Great Lakes by do the folloiwng:

  • 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; and
  • Increasing monitoring of PBDEs in the environment in order to assess the effectiveness of polices aimed at reducing their presence.

The IJC was established under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to help the United States and Canada prevent and resolve disputes over the use of the waters the two countries share.  The IJC’s responsibilities include reporting on progress made under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the nations toward restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes and connecting waters.

Free of PBDE

Free of PBDE


John Nicholson

John Nicholson

John is a cleantech and environmental expert with over 25 years of experience. He is a registered professional engineer and has a Masters degree in environmental engineering.
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