Ecological Screening Assessment Report on Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers

Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA)

June 2006

Environment Canada


Figure 1: Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE) structure

The figure depicts the chemical structure for polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

where x + y = 1 to 10

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA) requires the Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Health to conduct screening assessments of substances that meet the categorization criteria set out in the act and regulations to determine, in an expeditious manner, whether substances present or may present a risk to the environment or to human health. Based on the results of a screening assessment, the Ministers can propose taking no further action with respect to the substance, adding the substance to the Priority Substances List (PSL) for further assessment, or recommending that the substance be added to Schedule 1 of CEPA and, where applicable, the implementation of virtual elimination.

A screening assessment involves an analysis of a substance using conservative assumptions to determine whether the substance meets the criteria as defined in section 64 of CEPA. This ecological screening assessment examines various supporting information and develops conclusions based on a weight of evidence approach as required under Section 76.1 of CEPA. The screening assessment does not represent an exhaustive review of all available data; rather, it presents the most critical studies and lines of evidence supporting the conclusions. One line of evidence includes consideration of risk quotients to identify potential for ecological effects. However, other concerns that affect current or potential risk, such as persistence, bioaccumulation, chemical transformation and trends in ambient concentrations, are also examined in this report.

Seven polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were identified in a pilot project list of 123 substances for screening assessment under CEPA, on the basis of their potential persistence and/or bioaccumulation in the environment and inherent toxicity to organisms.

Data relevant to the ecological screening assessment of PBDEs were identified in original literature, review documents, and commercial and government databases and indices. In addition to retrieving the references from a literature database search, direct contacts were made with researchers, academics, industry and other government agencies to obtain relevant information on PBDEs. Ongoing scans were conducted of the open literature, conference proceedings and the Internet for relevant PBDE information. Information obtained as of October 2004 was considered for inclusion into this document, while that received between November 2004 and October 2005 was reviewed, but not generally added. The information obtained between November 2004 and October 2005 was found to support the conclusions of this report determined with information received up to October 2004. In addition, an industry survey on PBDEs was conducted for the year 2000 through a Canada Gazette Notice issued pursuant to Section 71 of CEPA. This survey collected data on the Canadian manufacture, import, uses and releases of PBDEs (Environment Canada 2003). Toxicological studies were also submitted by industry under Section 70 of CEPA.

This ecological screening assessment report and associated unpublished supporting working documentation was written by a team of Environment Canada evaluators at the Environmental Protection Branch, Pacific and Yukon Region, Vancouver, B.C., with the assistance of evaluators and management at the Existing Substances Branch, Gatineau, Quebec. The material in this report has been subjected to external review by Canadian and international experts selected from government and academia, including M. Alaee (Environment Canada, National Water Research Institute), L. Birnbaum (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), C. de Wit (Stockholm University), S. Dungey (UK Environment Agency), R. Hale (College of William and Mary, Virginia), R. Law (UK Centre for Environmental, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science), F. Luckey (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), J. Maguire (Environment Canada, National Water Research Institute), R. Norstrom (Environment Canada, National Wildlife Research Centre) and D. Stewart (Environment Canada, Ontario Region).

The ecological and human health screening assessment reports were approved by the joint Environment Canada/Health CanadaCEPA Management Committee. The supporting working documentation for the ecological assessment is available upon request by e-mail from Information on ecological screening assessments under CEPA is available at evaluating existing substances. The supporting working documentation for the human health assessment is available upon request by e-mail from Additional background information on health screening assessments conducted under this program is available online.

The critical information and considerations upon which the assessment is based are summarized below.

Identity, uses and sources of release

PBDEs comprise a class of substances consisting of 209 possible congeners with 1-10 bromine atoms. The following seven PBDE homologues, present on the Domestic Substances list (DSL), were identified in the pilot project list of 123 substances and are considered in this assessment:

  • tetrabromodiphenyl ether (benzene, 1,1'-oxybis-, tetrabromo derivative; tetraBDE) (Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS No. 40088-47-9);
  • pentabromodiphenyl ether (benzene, 1,1'- oxybis-, pentabromo derivative; pentaBDE) (CAS No. 32534-81-9);
  • hexabromodiphenyl ether (benzene, 1,1'-oxybis-, hexabromo derivative; hexaBDE) (CAS No. 36483-60-0);
  • heptabromodiphenyl ether (benzene, 1,1'-oxybis-, heptabromo derivative; heptaBDE) (CAS No. 68928-80-3);
  • octabromodiphenyl ether (benzene, 1,1'-oxybis-, octabromo derivative; octaBDE) (CAS No. 32536-52-0);
  • nonabromodiphenyl ether (benzene, 1,1'-oxybis-, nonabromo derivative; nonaBDE) (CAS No. 63936-56-1); and
  • decabromodiphenyl ether; bis(pentabromophenyl) ether (benzene, 1,1'-oxybis[2,3,4,5,6-pentabromo-; decaBDE) (CAS No. 1163-19-5).

These PBDEs are found in three commercial mixtures, typically referred to as Pentabromodiphenyl Ether (PeBDE), Octabromodiphenyl Ether (OBDE) and Decabromodiphenyl Ether (DBDE). PeBDE is predominantly a mixture of pentaBDE, tetraBDE and hexaBDE congeners, but may also contain trace levels of heptaBDE and tribromodiphenyl ether (triBDE) congeners. OBDE is a mixture composed mainly of heptaBDE, octaBDE and hexaBDE, but may also contain small amounts of nonaBDE and decaBDE. Current formulations of DBDE are almost completely composed of decaBDE and a very small amount of nonaBDE.

PBDEs are used mainly as additive flame retardants in polymer resins and plastics and, to a lesser extent, adhesives, sealants and coatings. Additive flame retardants are physically combined with the material being treated rather than chemically bonded as in reactive flame retardants; therefore, they are more susceptible, to a certain extent, to migration and loss from the polymer matrix. It has been estimated that approximately 90% or more of PeBDE produced globally is used in polyurethane foams in office and residential furniture, automotive upholstery, sound insulation and wood imitation products (WHO 1994; European Communities 2001; RPA Ltd. 2000). Most OBDE produced globally is added to polymers (mainly acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), which are then used to produce computers and business cabinets, pipes and fittings, automotive parts and appliances (WHO 1994; European Communities 2003). DBDE is used as a flame retardant, to a large extent in high-impact polystyrene and other polymers, with broad use in computer and television cabinets and casings, general electrical/electronic components, cables and textile back coatings (OECD 1994; European Communities 2002).

The total worldwide market demand for PBDEs was about 67 390 tonnes in 2001, including 56 100 tonnes of DBDE, 7500 tonnes of PeBDE and about 3790 tonnes of OBDE (BSEF 2003). There are significant differences in the usage of PBDEs by continent (see Table 1). The most apparent difference is that PeBDE is used almost exclusively in the Americas.

Table 1: market demand of PBDEs in 2001 (Bromine Science and Environmental Forum [BSEF] 2003)
Market demand
Estimated consumption (tonnes)
Market demand
Estimated consumption (tonnes)
Market demand
Estimated consumption (tonnes)
DBDE 44% 24 500 13% 7 600 43% 24 050
OBDE 40% 1 500 16% 610 44% 1 680
PeBDE 95% 7 100 2% 150 3% 250

a All countries in North, South and Central America were included.
b All countries in Eastern and Western Europe were included.
c Australia, New Zealand and the Indian subcontinent were included.

Results from a Section 71 Notice with Respect to Certain Substances on the Domestic Substances List (DSL) conducted for the year 2000 indicated that no PBDEs were manufactured in Canada, although approximately 1300 tonnes of PBDE commercial products (for manufacturing into finished articles) were imported into the country (Environment Canada 2003). Based on quantities reported, PeBDE was imported in the greatest volume, followed by DBDE. A very small amount of OBDE was imported into Canada in 2000. The volumes reported do not include quantities imported in finished articles.

Various initiatives have resulted in significant changes in the global use of the PBDEs since 2001. The U.S. manufacturer of PeBDE and OBDE, Great Lakes Chemical Corporation voluntarily ceased its production of PeBDE and OBDE by December 31, 2004 (U.S. EPA 2005, Great Lakes Chemical Corp. 2005). ICL Industrial Products (2005) also announced complete termination of its production and sale of its OBDE product by the end of 2004. In addition, PeBDE and OBDE have been subject to a phase-out by the European Union (EU). In response to its risk assessments, the EU passed a Directive (2003/11/EC) which requires all member states to adopt laws that prohibit the marketing or use of any product containing more than 0.1% by mass of PeBDE or OBDE effective August 15, 2004. While it is expected that these actions have resulted in significant changes in the global and Canadian use of PBDEs, many products currently in use will have been manufactured during or before 2004 using PeBDE and OBDE.

PBDEs may be released to the environment during manufacturing and polymer processing operations, throughout the service life of articles containing them and at the end of article service life during disposal operations.

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