To protect the health of the Great Lakes, governments ban the use of certain chemicals in products or come to agreements with manufacturers to phase out their use. The IJC’s Water Quality Board is exploring new problems that can arise when this happens.
One example is the use of flame retardants, also known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs. These chemicals are routinely found in many consumer and commercial products, including furniture, clothing, vehicles, building materials, and electronics.
The use of PBDEs started in the 1970s. As a result, traces of the chemicals can be found in humans, and other mammals, birds, and fish. PBDEs accumulate in the body, and there is evidence they can negatively affect the liver, thyroid and brain development.
As a result, the Canadian and U.S. governments and other countries around the world have either banned the further use of the most toxic types of PBDEs or come to agreements with manufacturers to voluntarily phase out their use.
Old cars are one consumer product that can contain flame retardants. Credit: Tiffany Balley
The Water Quality Board is using PBDEs as a case study to explore new problems that arise when we ban or phase out the use of toxic substances. We plan to make recommendations on additional actions that governments can take to avoid or deal with these problems.
The questions we are considering include:
- What replacements can be used for PBDEs, and will those replacements be investigated sufficiently to make sure that they are safe alternatives?
- Industry estimates that sales of products in the Great Lakes basin contained as much as 80,000 tons of PBDEs a year between 1970 and 2013. To what extent will chemicals continue to be released from these products during their use, and when they are recycled, put into landfills or incinerated?
- What role should industry play in ensuring that PBDE-containing products are retrieved and disposed of in ways that avoid releases to the Great Lakes basin? Many government jurisdictions now have legislation that requires those who profited by making and selling products to assume the responsibility for ensuring that the products are properly retrieved and managed after their use. What role should such “Extended Producer Responsibility” programs play and how can they be improved?
The Board hopes its case study and related recommendations will inform IJC advice to governments regarding decision-making on PBDEs, along with other current and future toxic substances that are part of consumer products. We hope to deliver our recommendations to the Commission in early 2016.
We must develop these programs to avoid future problems if we are to achieve the virtual elimination goal of toxic substances from the Great Lakes basin, as called for in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.