Polybrominated diphenyl  ethers (PBDEs) - information sheet

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Overview

  • The Government of Canada conducted science-based evaluations of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), including decaBDE to address the potential for harm to Canadians and to the environment. The assessments were completed in 2006, 2010, and 2012.
  • Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999), the risk posed by a substance is determined by considering both its hazardous properties (its potential to cause adverse human health or ecological effects) and the amount of exposure there is to people and the environment. A substance may have hazardous properties; however, the risk to human health or to the environment may be low depending upon the level of exposure.
  • The 7 PBDE groups assessed were not found to be harmful to human health however; PBDEs were concluded to be harmful to the environment at levels of exposure at the time of the assessment.

About these substances

  • The screening assessment focused on the groups tetraBDE, pentaBDE, hexaBDE, heptaBDE, octaBDE, nonaBDE and decaBDE, also referred to as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
  • PBDEs are a class of substances that contain the same base structure but differ in the number of attached bromine atoms.
  • PBDEs do not occur naturally, but are man-made. They are generally produced as commercial mixtures which may contain varying combinations of PBDEs.
  • PBDEs are used as flame retardants to slow the ignition and spread of fire.
  • According to information gathered, PBDEs were found in many items, including products used by consumers (such as carpet underlay, furniture foam, appliances, and electrical and electronic equipment) and building and automobile materials. Smaller markets included textiles, adhesives and sealants, rubber products and coatings.
  • The use of PentaBDE and OctaBDE commercial mixtures has been phased-out globally since 2006.
  • The 3 main manufacturers of the decaBDE commercial mixture operating in the United States voluntarily ceased exports of the decaBDE commercial mixture to Canada in mid-2012. Currently, there are no known Canadian users or importers of the decaBDE commercial mixture.

Human and ecological exposures

  • The assessment indicated that Canadians may be exposed to PBDEs from environmental sources (for example, air, water, household dust), food (including human breast milk), and products available to consumers that have been treated with mixtures of PBDEs (for example, televisions or computer casings).
  • This assessment took into consideration the results of human biomonitoring studies, which is the measurement of substances in blood, urine or breast milk. The presence of a substance in the body does not necessarily mean that it is causing harm. Harmful effects depend on the levels and the properties of the substances. The information on measured levels in humans is important to estimating exposure to Canadians.
  • PBDEs can be released to the environment throughout their lifecycle. This includes from the handling and manufacturing of the chemicals to use of the products which contain them.
  • At the time of the assessment, PBDEs were detected in all environmental media, as well as sewage biosolids.
  • The assessment also indicated that wildlife may be exposed from the consumption of prey containing elevated concentrations of PBDEs found in commercial mixtures.
  • High concentrations of PBDEs found in commercial mixtures in sediment may also present a risk to organisms that live in the sediment.

Key health and ecological effects (hazard)

  • At the time of the assessment, the “critical” or important effects considered in the human health assessment were neurodevelopmental effects (such as changes in movement and behaviour).
  • The ecological assessment indicated that wildlife may be at risk of secondary poisoning (which results from 1 organism coming into contact or ingesting another organism).

Risk assessment outcomes

  • Based upon a comparison of levels to which Canadians may be exposed to PBDEs at the time of the assessment, and the levels associated with health effects, the risk to human health for this substance was considered to be low. 
  • Considering all information presented at the time of the assessment, it was determined that there is a risk to the environment from PBDEs.
  • The Government of Canada published the Human Health State of Science Report for Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) on July 1, 2006.
  • The Government of Canada also published the Ecological Screening Assessment on Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) on July 1, 2006.
  • Following those publications, new environmental data for decaBDE became available and was examined in the final Ecological State of the Science Report on Decabromodiphenyl Ether (decaBDE) published in 2010, which supported the outcome of the 2006 assessment. The assessment also found that decaBDE likely contributes to the formation of bioaccumulative and/or potentially bioaccumulative transformation products such as lower brominated BDEs (like tetra-, penta- and hexaBDEs) in organisms and in the environment.
  • In 2012, a final Human Health State of the Science Report on Decabromodiphenyl Ether (decaBDE) was published and considered new information to assess potential harm of decaBDE to Canadians, and supported the outcome of the 2006 assessment.
  • All forms of PBDEs assessed in the report were concluded to meet the persistence criteria. Whereas only tetra-, penta-, and hexaBDEs were concluded to meet the bioaccumulation criteria as set out in the Persistence and Bioaccumulation Regulations of CEPA 1999.

Screening assessment conclusions

  • As a result of the state of science report, it was found that PBDEs are not harmful to human health at levels of exposure current at the time of the assessment.
  • However, the Government concluded that PBDEs are entering the environment at concentrations that are harmful to the environment at the time of the assessment.

Preventive actions and reducing risk

Related information

  • PBDEs may be found in products available to consumers. Canadians should follow any safety warnings and directions on product labels and dispose of products responsibly.
  • Visit Healthy Home for more information on chemical safety in and around the home.
  • Canadians who may be exposed to PBDEs in the workplace should consult with their employer and an occupational health and safety (OHS) representative about safe handling practices, applicable laws, and requirements under OHS legislation and the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS).
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