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HBCD is on the way out – but use of questionable alternatives will persist

November 26, 2014

This week, the United States celebrates Thanksgiving. But internationally, countries that have signed the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants have a different reason to give thanks: the amendment adding HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) to Annex A (Elimination) takes effect today. Under Annex A of the Convention, countries have up to five years to eliminate uses of HBCD in plastic foam building insulation, and any insulation materials containing HBCD during that phase-out period will need to be labeled.

HBCD is a persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) brominated flame retardant used in polystyrene insulation materials in order to meet outdated and ineffective flammability standards.

Some European countries have updated building codes so that plastic foams without added flame retardants can be safely used: for example, Norway has allowed for polystyrene geofoam without added flame retardants since 2004, and there has been no increase in fires involving these materials. But in countries where insulation flammability requirements still lead to the use of added flame retardants, a replacement for HBCD will be used in order to comply with building codes.

Great Lakes Solutions (a subsidiary of Chemtura), ICL Industrial Products, and Albemarle have begun production of a supposedly favorable replacement for HBCD: “PolyFR.” PolyFR is a brominated styrene butadiene copolymer. This replacement, while not considered PBT, is extremely persistent. Because it contains bromine, PolyFR used in building insulation can lead to increased production of halogenated dioxins and furans, which are linked to certain types of cancer and other chronic health complications. And the possible health and ecological impacts of PolyFR and its potential impurities and environmental breakdown products are not yet known. An estimated 23,000 metric tons of this polymeric flame retardant is being produced annually, and global production is expected to increase.

PolyFR may provide a textbook example of a “regrettable substitution,” emphasizing the importance of updating building codes to maintain fire safety and allow for reduced use of these chemicals. Following legislation in California in 2013, the California Office of the State Fire Marshal is investigating such updates.

For more information on the Institute’s work to reduce the use of harmful and unneeded flame retardants in plastic foam building insulation, see our Healthy Buildings page and