The IJC recommends strategy to reduce PBDE fire retardant chemicals in the Great Lakes


The International Joint Commission (IJC) today released a report recommending the governments of Canada and the United States adopt a strategy to address toxic polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in the Great Lakes, to reduce risks to human health and the environment.

PBDEs, a class of flame retardants widely used since the 1970s, have been found in the Great Lakes at levels that could be harmful to human health.  Present in a wide range of commercial and consumer products, such as electronic devices, appliances, carpets, mattresses and furniture, PBDEs are a concern because they are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment. Adverse impacts on wildlife include increased mortality rates, malformations, and thyroid system and metabolic impairment. Health effects in humans possibly associated with PBDE exposure relate primarily to thyroid disorders, reproductive health, cancers and neurobehavioral and developmental disorders.

Although production of various PBDEs has been banned or is being phased out, residual PBDE flame retardants are still present throughout the Great Lakes basin in a vast array of products. PBDEs were designated by the governments of Canada and the United States as a Chemical of Mutual Concern (CMC) in May 2016 under Annex 3 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

"The PBDEs polluting our Great Lakes are toxic substances of great concern," said Gordon Walker, chair of the IJC’s Canadian Section. "The IJC is now recommending a coordinated, binational strategy to be implemented by the end of 2017 to reduce the presence of this toxic pollutant."

"It will take sustained efforts from governments, industry and citizens to rid the lakes of these substances," said Lana Pollack, chair of the IJC’s US Section. "To keep these toxins out of the lakes and protect human health we have to control the full life cycle of these products, from initial design to final disposal."

The IJC’s recommendations in the report are based on the work of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, principal advisor to the IJC under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The report recommends that federal, state and provincial governments address polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in the Great Lakes by:

  • Developing and implementing a binational strategy to reduce PBDEs to the Great Lakes before the end of 2017;
  • Applying equally effective restrictions on the manufacture, use and sale of PBDEs and PBDE‑containing products throughout the basin;
  • Developing a plan for reducing and eliminating potential releases of PBDEs in products during the recycling and disposal stages;
  • Guiding industry on methods to assess PBDE substitutes and encouraging use of alternative methods for addressing flammability; and
  • Increasing monitoring of PBDEs in the environment in order to assess the effectiveness of polices aimed at reducing their presence.

The IJC recommends the governments use the lessons learned with PBDEs in addressing other substances in products and determining how to prevent problems with pollution. The strategy recommended by IJC, while specific to PBDEs, can be adapted for other toxic substances.

The IJC was established under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to help the United States and Canada prevent and resolve disputes over the use of the waters the two countries share. The IJC’s responsibilities include reporting on progress made under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the nations toward restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes and connecting waters. The IJC is currently preparing its first assessment of progress made by the governments to restore and protect the Great Lakes under the 2012 Agreement. Citizens can participate in the process through to June 2017 and can learn more online at

For more information on PBDEs in the Great Lakes, see the full report.

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Sally Cole-Misch



Michael Toope



Frank Bevacqua