Clearing a Flame Retardant Smoke Screen

James Vallette | January 04, 2010

In the process of identifying flame retardants in household dust and sewage sludge, Duke University environmental chemist Heather Stapleton identified four new compounds that raised public and environmental health concerns. Then she ran into a wall of industry secrecy. Many flame retardant manufacturers do not disclose their product's ingredients, so she could not cross-reference her findings with industry data.

Chemical companies routinely claim trade secrecy in matters pertaining to their products. An article in yesterday's Washington Post highlights the intersection of chemical ingredient secrecy and public policy.

The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act allows companies like Chemtura to not disclose broadly-defined "confidential business information" (CBI). As the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported last month, companies have placed CBI claims on 13,596 new chemicals produced since 1976.

Chemtura's Flamemaster 550® is one of these new chemicals, introduced as an alternative to brominated diphenyl ethers, such as Penta- and Deca-BDE. The company's website says the new product's ingredients are proprietary. And they told the Washington Post that CBI is "essential for ensuring the long-term competitiveness of U.S. industry."

"Industry had good reason to conceal the ingredients in Firemaster 550," notes EWG. If EPA scientists knew "the identity of the chemicals in Firemaster 550, the product would have come under serious scrutiny within the agency."

Yet much about Flamemaster 550®'s composition is readily known by industry competitors. A 1995 patent filed by Great Lakes Chemical (now part of Chemtura) lays out the production process and chemistry of Flamemaster 550® in great details. The primary chemical is a tetrabromobenzoate, produced from phthlalic anhydrides and 2-ethylhexanol. (Richard Rose, et al., "Use of ring-brominated benzoate compounds as flame retardants and/or plasticizers," Great Lakes Chemical Corporation, filed April 11, 1995, U.S. Patent No. 5,728,760)

While the patent describes the chemistry for all to see, Dr. Stapleton reverse engineered the flame retardant in the lab, and saw that its profile matched her findings of new chemical exposures in the household.

Patent searches and laboratory testing are common methods of identifying the composition of products. Chemtura admits this in a 2008 filing with EPA, which claims that its products' chemistry is Confidential Business Information.

An EPA form asks "whether a competitor could employ reverse engineering to identically recreate the substance." Chemtura concedes, "It is possible, but the competitor would have to have available the appropriate analytical equipment, the expertise and time."

It took me about five minutes, on-line, to find the basic process for making Flamemaster 550® via a patent search. And Dr. Stapleton's lab tests identified the product's ingredients with further precision, and without a chemical corporation's budget.

Here's the real bottom line: researchers will find out what is in problematic products, despite the TSCA CBI loophole. The sooner companies realize this, and provide full disclosure, the better it will be for their long-term positioning in the marketplace.