Deca-brominated diphenyl ether (BDE) is a controversial product. It narrowly passed an environmental risk assessment under the EU existing substances regulations in 2004, but concerns remain about its persistence, potential to degrade to bioaccumulative products and the potential toxicity of the low levels found in humans and wildlife.
The Voluntary Emissions Control Action Programme (VECAP) is an industry effort to reduce process emissions following concerns over deca’s environmental persistence and accumulation in sediments (ENDS Report 358, p 10).
VECAP, which is being run by the European Brominated Flame Retardants Industry Panel and the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, produced its first annual report in May.1The programme began in the UK and aims to extend to France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands by 2007. The six countries account for 95% of EU deca consumption, which occurs almost exclusively in the textile and plastics sectors.
In the UK, VECAP said it covers 95% of deca use in the textile sector. For plastics, it covers only 73%, despite an early target of 90% by June 2007. This target has now been lowered to 80%.
Programme members agree to adopt a code of good practice for controlling emissions and measure their current emissions to establish a baseline. Methods include using mass balances and estimates of emissions in effluents based on surrogate measurements such as total bromine content. Analysis of deca itself has proved too expensive for general use.
A Textile Finishers’ Association survey of industry emissions in 2005 reported that deca emissions had fallen by 75% since 2004.
There were no figures for emission reductions in the plastics sector, although the report said emissions per tonne of product used were about a factor of ten lower than in the textiles sector.
All of the report data were expressed as percentages of undisclosed values, but the achievements would be more credible if actual tonnages were included.
VECAP product steward Paul Adriaenssens explained it was difficult to get all parties to agree to publish real figures. Nevertheless, he promised: "We will publish them as soon as we have values for all sectors and for all countries," which he estimated might be by mid-2007.
In other EU countries, VECAP is gathering commitments and baseline emission surveys are under way (see table). It aims to cover 80-100% of deca consumption in all targeted countries by June 2007. It also plans to extend to the US, Canada and Japan, and to other flame retardants, such as hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) and tetra-bromo bisphenol A.
The Textile Finishers’ Association kicked off the process in the UK with a study on HBCD, which is thought to have increased in use over the past decade with the withdrawal of penta- and octa-BDE products on environmental grounds. Scientists have speculated this may have increased contamination in porpoises (ENDS Report 376, p 25).
The Environment Agency welcomed VECAP’s achievements: "Had VECAP been a regulatory measure… it would have been hailed as a major success."
As rapporteur for deca’s environmental risk assessment, the Agency has access to more emissions data than is publicly available and is in a position to see the fuller picture of VECAP’s impact. In 2004, the EU existing substances risk assessment had estimated the total EU losses from the textile sector at 1.5 tonnes per year. Worst-case deca emissions from a large textile processing site were put at 0.6 tonnes per year from formulation and 0.3 tonnes per year from coating processes. An Agency spokesman said these figures now represent "the high-end" of emissions expected from a textile site. The implication is that before VECAP, much larger emissions could be found.
The Agency reports regularly on scientific research into the environmental fate of deca for EU policy-makers. Currently, about 30 studies appear each month.
France is rapporteur for deca’s human health risk assessment and is carrying out a biomonitoring study on levels of the compound in human blood and breast milk.
Environmental groups such as WWF are focusing on these studies: "Our biomonitoring has shown that products containing deca are an exposure route, so total deca use rather than process emission reduction, is the key indicator," Gwynne Lyons of WWF-UK said.