IJC seeks comment on strategy to reduce PBDE fire retardant chemicals in the Great Lakes


The International Joint Commission (IJC) today released Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) in the Great Lakes, a report proposing a strategy for federal, state and provincial governments to reduce the adverse effects of PBDEs on the environment.

In May 2016, the Canadian and United States federal governments designated PBDEs as a Chemical of Mutual Concern under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This new report, produced by the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board, recommends that federal, state and provincial governments take that initiative further, and:

  • Implement restrictions on the manufacture, use and sale of PBDEs and products containing them.
  • Eliminate potential releases of PBDEs during product recycling and disposal.
  • Provide guidance to industry, municipalities and the public on the recycling and disposal of products containing PBDEs.
  • Implement Extended Producer Responsibility programs requiring industry to be responsible to ensure proper recycling and disposal of products containing PBDEs.
  • Require industry to obtain prior government approval for PBDE substitutions.
  • Establish a registry identifying products containing PBDEs.
  • Ensure ongoing research and monitoring of PBDEs in the environment.

"The story of PBDEs shows why we need a comprehensive cradle-to-grave approach to managing persistent toxic substances in commerce that includes restrictions on manufacturing, sale and use, and extended producer responsibility programs," said John Jackson, project lead for the Great Lakes Water Quality Board.

PBDEs have been widely used as flame retardants since the 1970s and have been added to a wide range of commercial and consumer products, such as electronic devices, plastics, mattresses and carpets. PBDEs are a concern because they are persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative and have been detected in the environment and in a variety of species worldwide. Adverse impacts on wildlife include increased mortality rates, malformations, and thyroid system and metabolic impairment. Over the past decade, Canada and the United states have implemented measures that have reduced PBDEs in the environment, but they remain present in all of the Great Lakes. 

Members of the public are invited to provide comments on the report from July 6 to August 5, 2016, either online or by email (Commission@ottawa.ijc.org). The Commission is interested in comments on the following topics:

  1. Is the problem accurately characterized?
  2. Are the recommendations sound?
  3. Are any important considerations overlooked?

An informational webinar about PBDEs in the Great Lakes was held on Thursday, July 21, 2016 at 11:00 EST. 


Webinar on PBDE Chemicals in the Great Lakes 2016/07/21 from International Joint Commission on Vimeo.


Michael Toope


Kevin Bunch

Backgrounder on PBDEs:  What They Are, Why They are a Concern

Chemical flame retardants have been widely used in an array of products since the 1970s. Some early flame retardants that were highly toxic were replaced by polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. But there are serious environmental and health concerns related to PBDEs, too.

You can find PBDEs in building materials, electronics such as computers, upholstery and other furnishings, motor vehicles, plastics and textiles. PBDEs enter air, water, and soil during their manufacture and when we use these products. Humans are exposed to PBDEs throughout our lives. We ingest them from eating meats, fish and dairy products and inhale them in dust at home and work from furnishings, electronics and textiles. 

Studies on mice and rats have shown that exposure to PBDEs and polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) causes neurodevelopmental toxicity, weight loss, toxicity to the kidney, thyroid and liver and dermal disorders.  This may have implications for human health. Studies on animals and humans have shown that some PBBs and PBDEs can act as endocrine system disruptors and also tend to deposit in human adipose tissue. PBDEs are bioaccumulative, meaning they build up as they move through the food chain. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to PBDEs harms wildlife by increasing mortality rates, causing malformations, and impairing thyroid and metabolic systems.

All of the Great Lakes contain some levels of PBDEs, with Erie and Ontario having the highest concentrations in water. Despite phaseouts of some PBDE chemicals used in furniture, mattresses, automobiles and some electronic products, products that contain the chemicals are still imported and are in widespread use in the basin.

Details about these and other issues are provided in the Water Quality Board’s PBDE report, which has been released for public comment until August 5, 2016. 


PBDE Chemicals in the Great Lakes from International Joint Commission on Vimeo.