posted September 21, 2012

EPA Grant Supports Effort to Reduce Toxic Flame-Retardant Chemicals

A grant to Hope College faculty member Dr. Graham Peaslee from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will support a collaborative effort to reduce the release of toxic flame-retardant chemicals into the Great Lakes basin by reducing their use in consumer products.

The $100,000 grant was one of three awards through the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) program that the agency announced on Wednesday, Sept. 19, in conjunction with National Pollution Prevention Week.

Peaslee is the principal investigator for the grant, which is supporting a one-year project that will focus on organizing workshops to help make manufacturers aware of the hazards of the chemicals and alternatives to their use.  He is collaborating on the effort with Dr. Arlene Blum, who is executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute of Berkeley, Calif., and Anna Soehl, project manager for the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Commission.

Peaslee noted that chlorinated and brominated organic compounds are commonly used in fire retardants that show up in products ranging from furniture, to children’s mattresses to automobiles.  The problem is, he said, that research shows that long-term exposure to the chemicals is harmful to human health.

“They’re not so toxic to touch, but they bio-accumulate,” he said.  “You’re putting these brominated compounds into the body fat of everyone who comes into contact with them, which many animal and human studies have linked with adverse health effects - that’s bad, bad, bad.”

The project team is planning a series of four workshops starting in December.  Peaslee said that they will be working with regional manufacturers and retailers whose products include the fire retardant chemicals to outline the hazards, share information about limitations in the effectiveness of the chemicals, and suggest that other approaches might better appeal to consumers, particularly as public awareness of the health risks grows.  The “Chicago Tribune” recently published an investigative series in May about the use of the chemicals, and California, Peaslee said, is currently examining reforming its stringent standards for fire-retardants in light of new information about the chemicals.

Peaslee has for several years been studying the Lake Macatawa watershed with a particular focus on identifying sources of run-off pollution that ultimately finds its way into Lake Michigan.  The EPA grant, he said, reflects a concern that the same sort of run-off is happening in watersheds throughout the region, with the chemicals leaching from objects treated with flame retardants that have found their way to landfills.

“It’s going to get into the Great Lakes,” he said.  “It’ll get into the food chain in the Great Lakes, and that’s what they want to help prevent.”

Even if the manufacturers stop using the chemicals, Peaslee said, the issue will remain of what to do with the products that already exist and eventually wear out and are discarded.  “We don’t even know the correct way to deal with this material at the end of product life—and that’s really frightening,” he said.

In the meantime, Peaslee is seeking to find faster and less expensive ways to detect the toxic chemicals’ presence. Over the past year, he and the Hope students on his research team have successfully used the college’s particle accelerator to detect the chemicals in hundreds of samples, providing a rapid alternative to the traditional approach involving gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy.

“The traditional technique to measure these chemicals is very expensive,” he said.  “I think that we can cut the cost of these analyses by a factor of ten.”

Over the last three years, the EPA’s GLRI initiative has provided more than $11 million for pollution prevention projects to improve Great Lakes water quality by reducing or eliminating waste at the source, promoting the use of non-toxic or less-toxic substances, implementing conservation techniques and re-using materials.  The other recipients announced by the EPA on September 19 were the Product Stewardship Institute for a project in the Chicago, Ill., area, and the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.