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Beijing Green Science Policy Symposium on Fire Retardants

By Eddy Ball
October 2009

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Beijing Sumposium Speakers
The speakers posed for a group photo. Shown, left to right, are Zeng, Shaw, Blum, Birnbaum and Webster. (Photo courtesy of Arlene Blum)

NIEHS played an important role in the August 22 Green Science Policy Symposium on "The Fire Retardant Dilemma in China" with two distinguished speakers on the five-lecture agenda — NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and NIEHS grantee Tom Webster, D.Sc., of Boston University (BU). The meeting in Beijing was sponsored by the Berkeley, Calif.-based Green Science Policy Institute, an organization dedicated to mobilizing scientists, industry, government, non-governmental organizations and consumers worldwide to reduce toxic exposures in the environment.

According to the Green Science Policy Institute, the fire retardant dilemma is "How can we achieve fire and environmental safety as well as protect public health?" The issue is global, but also increasingly pertinent in China. As speakers at the meeting ( Exit NIEHS explained, production levels of the more toxic halogenated flame retardant (HFR) chemicals are nearly three times those in the U.S. and the European Union and each year the country receives an estimated 70 percent of the world's electronic waste — an important source of HFRs now in use as well as those banned elsewhere.

As her contribution to the discourse about HFRs, Birnbaum(, who also delivered an NIEHS Distinguished Lecture ( on HFRs in September, presented "An Overview of Halogenated Fire Retardant Research." Birnbaum's presentation focused on the human health effects, especially from early exposure, ecotoxicity, regulatory status and policy developments related to the three most common HFR chemicals — Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs). Fittingly, she concluded her talk with a review of green science and sustainability principles that scientists should bear in mind as they search for safer alternative and next-generation flame retardants.

In his presentation, Webster, ( Exit NIEHS who is associate chairman of Environmental Health in the BU School of Public Health, spoke on the topic "From Product to Person: How to Measure Human Exposure to Persistent Halogenated Chemicals." Webster reviewed findings from the literature on HFRs to trace the complete pathway from the source to the microenvironment that results in personal exposure, usually by inhalation or ingestion of HFRs in dust or food, and the ultimate internal dose, which has most commonly been measured in blood and breast milk. His talk ended on a disturbing note as he speculated that PBDEs still in the environment long after production has ceased may one day be the target of a "Superfund of the future."

Also featured at the symposium were three other experts on the issue of HFRs and their health risks. Arlene Blum, Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS, founder and executive officer of the Green Science Policy Institute and a visiting scholar in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, opened the symposium with her talk on "The Fire Retardant Dilemma in China: Human Health and the Global Environment." Susan Shaw, Ph.D., founder and director of the U.S. Marine Environmental Research Institute, explored "A Comparison of Fire Retardant Levels and Known Health Effects in Wildlife and Humans." The final speaker was Eddy Zeng, Ph.D. Exit NIEHS, director of the State Key Laboratory of Organic Geochemistry at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, who offered the audience "A big picture view of halogenated chemical exposures in China."

At the panel discussion that followed their talks, Birnbaum and Webster joined their colleagues for a consideration of "How to protect human health and the environment from halogenated flame retardant chemicals."

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