Backgrounder on Brominated Fire Retardants  

By Sarah Richardson; Naturalist;  Stubbs Island Whale Watching; 2006 

Environment Canada's proposed risk management strategy for PBDEs; includes an overview of what other nations' initiatives against PBDEs.


History of Brominated Fire Retardants:

Over the 20th century, humanity has come to rely heavily on petroleum-based products such foams and plastics.  Unfortunately, these materials burn readily, so chemicals called flame retardants are added to these products to stop fire from catching and spreading as easily.  The most commonly used fire retardants, after the banning of PCBs, have become a group of chemicals known as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) which were first developed in the 1970’s (1).  In most cases, PBDEs are used as additive flame retardants, where they are only physically combined with the product, as opposed to reactive flame retardants that are chemically bonded to the product (2). Because of this, PBDEs are able to leach in to the environment throughout the life of the products containing them, as well as after their disposal (2). Worldwide, only 8 companies manufacture PBDEs (3), with the three largest: Albemarle Corporation (, ICL Industrial Products ( and Chemtura ( accounting for 78% of global production (4).  Despite the small number of companies producing these fire retardants, PBDEs are found in thousands of products.

Products containing PBDEs:

The three main forms of PBDEs used commercially are called penta-BDE, octa-BDE, and deca-BDE because the molecules in each mixture have on average about 5, 8 or 10 bromine atoms, respectively.

·        Penta-BDE: Approximately 90% produced globally is used in polyurethane foams in office and residential furniture, automotive upholstery, sound insulation and wood imitation products (2).  Often used in quantities of up to 30% of product weight in some plastics, textiles, and foams (5).

Since PBDEs are able leach out and persist in the environment, and their use has been increasing exponentially, there is great concern about contamination in wildlife, such as Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) (7).

PBDE contamination in wildlife:

Studies within Canada have shown that along with the exponential increase in PBDE production, there have been dramatic increases in concentrations of PBDE contamination in the tissues of wildlife over the past 20 years (2).   These levels of PBDE contamination continue to rise, especially in wildlife living closer to industrialized areas (2).  However, PBDEs can travel huge distances via air and water currents and accumulate in regions where they are neither produced nor used, such as the Arctic (8).  Over the two decades between 1981 and 2000, PBDE concentrations in Arctic ringed seals, the chief prey of polar bears, has increased exponentially, doubling roughly every 4-5 years (9).  Of the three forms of PBDEs, the “lighter” molecule Penta-BDEs contaminate wildlife most easily and accumulates in tissue almost as fast as PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls), toxic chemicals banned in the 1970’s (10).  However, the “heavier” molecule Deca-BDEs, when exposed to sunlight, break down into “lighter” forms of PBDEs that accumulate readily in wildlife (10, 14).  Wildlife at the top of the food chain has the highest risk of contamination since PBDEs do not metabolize quickly and accumulate up the food chain (11). Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) are especially vulnerable because they are long-lived, so they have a longer exposure period; have a thick layer of fat that PBDEs accumulate in; and they are at the top of the food chain, with resident killer whales feeding primarily on large Chinook salmon, and transient killer whales feeding primarily on marine mammals (e.g. seals and porpoises) (5).  Recent studies have shown that wildlife contaminated with PBDEs may experience endocrine disruption, impaired reproduction, reduced immunity, changes in neurological development, and disruption in the uptake of vitamin A and thyroid hormones (1 , 2 , 12, 13, 14).  Understandably, this concern over PBDE contamination and its subsequent health effects has lead to a push to ban these chemicals, as well as to find viable, non-toxic alternatives.

  Response from Industry:

Many companies have begun to phase out PBDEs, switched over to alternative fire retardants, or redesigned their products to reduce flammability (6).  Some examples include:

Computer/Electronics: Hewlett-Packard, Apple, IBM, Toshiba, Fujitsu Siemens, Motorola, Intel, Panasonic/Matsushita, Sony, Dell, Phillips, Ericsson, Canon

Furniture/Other: Ikea, Berkeley Mills, Volvo

Note:  There are 10 to 15 non-bioaccumulative alternatives to PBDEs (11)

Response from Governments:

Several states/countries have banned or plan to phase out the use of penta and octa PBDEs.  The claim from industry is that the deca PBDEs are too heavy to disperse and too large to be taken up by the gut.  Yet, Dr. Ross' research on 4-week old harbour seal pups reveals the presence of the deca PBDEs in their blubber even in areas far away from urbanization (Queen Charlotte Strait)  Hence, they are distributing and being taken up by the gut. (11)

What You Can Do:

·        Buy products such as furniture and electronics from PBDE-free manufacturers, thus encouraging the use of alternative flame retardants (e.g. aluminum trihydroxide, ammonium polyphosphate, and red phosphorus).

·        Buy products made of natural materials (e.g. wool) which are naturally flame retardant, rather than petroleum-based products (i.e. plastics).

·        Write a letter to your local representative ( USA ) or member of parliament and/or Ministers of Environment, Health, or Industry  (CANADA) asking them to:

1.    Make the phase-out of Deca-BDE and all other PBDEs a priority.

2.    Require that all brominated fire retardants are replaced with safer alternatives.

3.    Require electronics manufacturers to take back products for recycling to encourage better product design.

4.    Implement recycling guidelines to ensure brominated fire retardants are not put into new products.

5.    Implement new purchasing guidelines that include criteria for products that do not contain brominated fire retardants.

6.    Implement new chemical policies that would require safer substitutes and the phase-out of persistent, bioaccumulative, and/or highly toxic chemicals.

7.    Label all products containing brominated fire retardants, until there is a ban in place, so consumers can make an informed choice.  

8.  Sign the Labour Environmental Alliance Society's petition.
 (Click on "Download our petition...")”


(1) Ross, P.S. 2006. Fireproof killer whales (Orcinus orca): flame retardant chemicals and the conservation imperative in the charismatic icon of British Columbia , Canada . Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 63:224-234.

(2) Environment Canada . 2006. Ecological Screening Assessment Report on Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs).  

(3) Lunder, S., Sharp, R. 2003. Tainted Catch. Environmental Working Group, Oakland .

 (4) Bromine Science and Environment Forum (BSEF). 2006. Our Industry.

 (5) Rayne, S. M.G. Ikonomou, G.M. Ellis, L.G. Barrett-Lennard, and P.S. Ross. 2004. PBDEs, PCNs, and PBBs in Three Communities of Free-Ranging Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) from the Northeastern Pacific Ocean . Environ. Sci. Technol. 38(6).  

(6) McPherson, A., Thorpe, B. and A. Blake. 2004. Brominated Flame Retardants in Dust on Computers: the case for safer chemicals and better computer design. Computer Take-Back Campaign and Clean Production Action,

 (7) Killer Whale Recovery Team. 2005. DRAFT National Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca). Prepared for Public Consultations, Spring 2005, for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, on behalf of the Resident Killer Whale Recovery Team. 70 pp.

 (8) Doole, C. 2005. Newsroom: Norwegian killer whales most toxic mammals in Arctic . WWF.

 (9) ABSTRACT: Ikonomou, M.G., Rayne, S., and R.F. Addison. 2002. Increases of the Brominated Flame Retardants, Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers, in the Canadian Arctic from 1981 to 2000. Environ. Sci. Technol. 36(9): 1886 – 1892

      See also: Environmental Concentrations of Brominated Flame Retardants in Samples from the Northwestern Pacific Ocean and the Canadian Arctic (Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Vancouver Aquarium/University of British Columbia)  

(10) Hooper, K., McDonald, T.A. 2000. The PBDEs: An Emerging Environmental Challenge and Another Reason for Breast-Milk Monitoring Programs. Environ. Health Perspect. 108(5): 387-392.

 (11) Ross, P.S. 2006. “Fireproof Killer Whales”. Presentation given August 26th, 2006 at the Whale Interpretive Centre, Telegraph Cove, BC.

 (12) ABSTRACT: Darnerud, 2003. Toxic effects of brominated flame retardants in man and wildlife.  Environment International 29:841-853.

(13) Eriksson, P., Jakobsson, E. and A. Fredriksson. 2001. Brominated Flame Retardants: A Novel Class of Developmental Neurotoxicants in Our Environment? Environ. Health Perspect. 109(9)

(14) Birnbaum, L.S., Staskal, D.F. 2004. Brominated Flame Retardants: Cause for Concern? Environ. Health Perspect. 112(1)