After two years of disappointment, environmentalists appear on the verge of making Washington the first state to ban all forms of a potentially...
After two years of disappointment, environmentalists appear on the verge of making Washington the first state to ban all forms of a potentially toxic flame retardant.
With larger Democratic majorities, stronger backing from the governor and compromises that have won over some skeptical firefighters, bills aimed at phasing out most uses of the chemicals known as PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are on a fast track to votes by both houses of the state Legislature.
“It’s never 100 percent on a bill like this. But I’m very confident we’ll be able to do it this year,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, the bill’s prime sponsor in the House.
The legislation was among the first to have committee hearings this year in both the House and the Senate. On Thursday, the House Select Committee on Environmental Health voted 6-3 in favor of House Bill 1024, with minority Republicans casting the “no” votes..
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Opponents acknowledged the political winds seem to be blowing against them.
“With the Democrats having a constitutional majority, I think that gives them pretty good chance of getting this through,” said Brad Tower, a lobbyist working for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, an alliance of PBDE makers.
PBDEs are a chief target of environmentalists. Tests have found the fire retardant in everything from Puget Sound water and women’s breast milk to house dust.
PBDEs are used to reduce the spread of fire in an array of plastic and foam products in homes and offices, including upholstered furniture, building materials, televisions, computers and other electronic equipment. About half of the 135 million pounds of PBDEs used worldwide in 2001 were applied to products in North America.
There is concern that the chemicals could impair brain development in fetuses and children, and interfere with the thyroid gland.
Fire-retardant manufacturers have voluntarily stopped making some versions of the chemical. But one, called Deca-BDE or “deca,” is still widely used in televisions, as well as some home electronics and textiles.
Makers of deca argue there’s no good evidence the chemical is unsafe and that it’s a valuable fire retardant that saves lives.
But proponents of a ban say deca can break down into other toxic chemicals and alternative fire retardants work just as well.
Scientists who specialize in toxic contaminants say the flame retardants are as potent and long-lasting as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and DDT — chemicals that began to accumulate in the environment in the 1950s and were banned in the 1970s. Even if PBDEs were banned today, they would endure in the environment for decades, scientists say.
The legislation’s rising fortunes come partly because it’s watered-down.
Two years ago, environmentalists sought a swift ban on most uses of PBDEs. Producers could only use PBDEs with a special exemption.
In this year’s legislation, deca will be banned from mattresses starting in 2008, though the chemical is already rarely used in them. The chemical would be banned from electronics and furniture beginning in 2011.
But first, a fire-safety committee made of state and local fire officials appointed by the governor must agree there is a good alternative fire retardant.
That provision was what won over the Washington Fire Chiefs Association, which last year opposed legislation.
Still, a different group, the state association of elected fire-district commissioners, remains opposed to the new version. Instead of leaving the final decision to a committee, the Legislature should have to take a vote for any specific bans, said Ryan Spiller, the association’s lobbyist.
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or email@example.com
Information from the Los Angeles Times was included in this report.