Europeans To Ban Fire Retardants and Phthalates Critical To American Building Industry

dow styrofoam image

Image credit Dow Chemical

Comments to the post What is the Best Way To Build A Wall? Not A Simple Answer wondered why we wanted to reinvent the wall. The consensus was "Having XPS on the exterior is, I think, the easiest and best solution." I will be honest and say that I have been frustrated over the last year that nobody seems to care that the stuff is full of HBCDD, a persistent bioacculative toxicant that according to Toxicologist Linda Birnbaum in BuildingGreen, affects the liver and thyroid, it appears to cause neurodevelopmental problems, and there is some new evidence of effects on the reproductive system.

Perhaps someone will pay attention now that they are banning the stuff in Europe, along with three kinds of phthalates.

In America, just about anything goes with chemicals until someone shows they are dangerous. In Europe, the REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) program reverses the burden of proof; manufacturers must show that they are safe. Where chemicals are considered hazardous, REACH sets "sunset" dates, deadlines for elimination. But you can't complain that it is the precautionary principle gone mad when it comes to HBCD; the stuff is known to be unhealthy.

HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane)

dow styrofoam
Is it safe? Why, it's Cradle to Cradle Certified Silver!

Two years ago, in Environmental Building News,

Chemist Arlene Blum, Ph.D., who carried out groundbreaking research on flame retardants in the 1970s that was instrumental in the banning of tris and Fryol from children's sleepwear, says that given the very high volume of HBCD use, its persistence in the environment, its toxicity, and that fact that it's being found at rapidly increasing levels in the arctic and in wildlife globally, the chemical "should only be used with caution and when absolutely necessary." She describes HBCD as a semi-volatile organic compound that is not covalently bonded to polystyrene, so she believes that leaching into the soil when in ground contact would be likely. "We need further research to determine the extent to which it can escape during the life of a building," she told EBN.

She reacted to the European decision in EBN yesterday:

HBCD is clearly a bad actor chemical and the EU ban should contribute to its being phased out in the U.S.

More on HBCD:
Polystyrene Insulation Doesn't Belong in Green Building ...


pvc vinyl phthalates

Image credit PVC: The Poison Plastic

Also on the ban list are three kinds of phtalates, used in the manufacture of PVC and vinyl products. Phthalates are impact modifiers that are compounded into vinyl to give it varying consistencies and softness. They do not chemically bond to the plastic and can leach out. Healthy Building News reports that they are considered to be "hormone-disrupting reproductive toxicants."

We have written about them often:
Do Babies Exposed to Phthalates Have Smaller Penises?
Ask Treehugger: What Is An Endocrine Distruptor?

MDA (4,4'-diaminodiphenylmethane)

sprayed urethane foam image

Sprayed urethane foam. Image credit Lloyd Alter

MDA is "a known potent carcinogen used as a basic building block in the manufacture of polyurethane foams and MDI composite wood binders." Tom Lent of the Pharos Project explains:

The types of building products impacted by the REACH phase-out of MDA include high performance coatings, flooring adhesives, carpet backings, sprayed polyurethane foam insulation, composite wood, and resilient flooring compositions that contain polyurethane wear layers. MDA - targeted because it is a known potent carcinogen - is an essential building block of methylene diisocyanates, commonly referred to as MDI. MDI is used as a binder in wood composites. It is also used in combination with polyol mixtures in most polyurethane systems. (Some polyurethanes avoid MDA chemistry by using toluene-based isocyanates).

What will happen here?

  • Expect the American Chemistry Council to go completely medieval; this will make the BPA battle look like nothing. Expect a more concerted effort to kill the EPA.

  • Expect attacks on the REACH program and the entire idea of the precautionary principle.

  • Expect the building industry, which is built on vinyl and styrofoam, to convince the government and citizens that energy savings trump health and that the price of change is too high.

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