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Environ Int. 2003 Sep;29(6):725-34.

Playing with fire: the global threat presented by brominated flame retardants justifies urgent substitution.

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  • 1Department of Biological Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4PS, UK.


Few would now deny that the use of organobromine compounds to achieve fire retardancy in a diverse array of products and materials has led to contamination of the ecosphere on a widespread scale. This environmental prevalence and persistence of the brominated flame retardants, coupled with growing evidence of their potential for harm, present all too familiar parallels with the previous generation of persistent organic pollutants. Indeed, given the intrinsic properties of these brominated chemicals, the nature and extent of the current problem could well have been predicted in advance. The question is then whether we are prepared to let history repeat itself once more or to take precautionary action now to switch to more sustainable alternatives. The choice facing society is not between brominated flame retardants and unsafe products, but between fire safety leading to global contamination or fire safety achieved in less polluting ways. If we look beyond options for simple chemical-for-chemical substitution to alternative materials and designs, many of the solutions are already available. The remainder could undoubtedly be developed given the incentives to do so. However, a strong and clear policy approach, backed by legislative phase-outs within specified (and challenging) timeframes, will be necessary to break our current dependency on organobromine chemistry. This paper presents the justification for such an approach, reviews those initiatives already underway to replace brominated flame retardants and identifies pathways to the use of more sustainable products in the service of society.

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