The Decline of Deca

Paul Bogart | December 18, 2009

The voluntary phase-out agreement announced yesterday between the EPA and major US manufacturers of a class of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) is a significant step forward in efforts to protect the environment and public health from unhealthy chemicals.

Like most "voluntary" agreements between EPA and industry; "voluntary" doesn't seem the most precise adjective for the agreement. It's like calling going to the dentist voluntary; technically true, but the vast majority of us don't feel like we have much choice. Ditto, this agreement.

And yet, for those of us who help guide the purchase of millions of dollars of building materials every day, the voluntary decision provides some relief. If the companies stop making BFRs, it is one step closer to removing a class of nasty chemicals from our radar screens. It gets us one step closer to not having to worry about whether the waiting room upholstery we are about to source for the doctor's office or hospital is free from unhealthy flame retardants.

For years, industry controlled "citizens" groups, and the usual infantry of federal and state lobbyists have been armed with millions of dollars and industry sponsored "science" to actively oppose such a "voluntary" decision. At the same time, however, there has been a whole different set of volunteers that should be congratulated for this agreement. There are the hundreds of volunteers nationwide that have taken part in "bio-monitoring" studies to measure the amount of flame retardants and other persistent chemicals in their blood and breast milk. There are the volunteers who called and testified before state legislators across the country to encourage their representatives to take state action to restrict these chemicals in light of increasingly disturbing evidence. There are the committed academic scientists who focused their research on looking at the health effects of BFRs and shared their expertise with the broader community. And then there are the untold numbers of specifiers and consumers who voluntarily chose to purchase products that didn't contain these chemicals.

The voluntary agreement to phase-out deca is not without its omissions and exemptions, and much remains to be done. But today, those of us who work at HBN and the Pharos Project honor the real "volunteers" in this agreement.