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U.N. Convention Bans Flame Retardant

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants has voted for a global ban of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), a common flame retardant in insulation, textiles, and electronics. HBCD now joins two other such compounds on the convention's list of restricted chemicals.

Brominated flame retardants are very good at preventing plastics and textiles from catching fire. They also tend to persist in the environment and accumulate in biological tissue. Out of concern for possible human health effects, the convention in 2009 banned tetrabromodiphenyl ether and pentabromodiphenyl ether.

According to the convention's description of HBCD, the chemical is made in the United States, Europe, and Asia. In 2001, about half of the 16,500 tons on the market was used in Europe. By 2003, global demand had risen to nearly 22,000 tons.

With HBCD now on the convention's list of pollutants, countries must work to eliminate its use. The European Union's toxics program, called REACH, had already identified HBCD as a "substance of very high concern" and called for its phase-out by 2015. But David Azoulay, managing attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) in Geneva, Switzerland, says that the global ban is a good step. "The ban prevents other countries from adopting this chemical for existing or developing new uses for it," he told ScienceInsider.

CIEL and other environmental groups were disappointed that the European Union was granted a 5-year exception for using HBCD in expanded and extruded polystyrene insulation in buildings. Companies that make HBCD for this purpose must notify the convention, clearly identify their products, and cannot export them from the European Union.