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Friday, March 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lawmakers consider banning potentially toxic flame retardant

Seattle Times staff reporter

State lawmakers are at the center of a national debate over whether to ban a potentially toxic flame retardant commonly used in televisions, electronics and furniture.

The Senate may vote today on a bill that would require the phase-out of Deca-BDE, a chemical known as "deca." If the measure passes both houses and is signed by the governor, Washington would become the first state in the country to ban the chemical.

The debate has turned on deca's possible risks versus the loss of an effective fire retardant, with each side enlisting firefighter groups to promote its cause and dismissing opponents as fear mongers.

Supporters of the bill — environmentalists, some firefighters and the state departments of Ecology and Health — say studies suggest deca breaks down into potentially toxic chemicals once also used as fire retardants.

Though companies have stopped making those retardants, studies show they are still found widely in the environment, in everything from human breast milk to house dust. According to a state report, there is evidence the retardants cause damage to the thyroid, liver and developing brain of laboratory animals.

Given the evidence, it makes sense to ban deca if there's a safer replacement, said Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, the bill's lead backer in the Senate.

"We've had too many experiences in history where we looked at something and thought it wasn't harmful and just blithely went along with using it, until we realized there was a problem when it was too late," she said.

On Thursday afternoon, though, Regala said she wasn't sure she had enough votes to get the bill passed.

The bill would ban deca in computers and televisions beginning in 2010 and in upholstered furniture and mattresses beginning in 2012. But the state could hold off the ban until 2014, if no good substitute is found.

Some companies, including Dell and Sony, have already stopped using deca.

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Delaying the ban helped win the support of Mike Matlick, the acting state fire marshal, who said he would be concerned if the ban was imposed before alternatives are found.

Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, Ferry County, questioned why the state would ban a proven fire retardant without a replacement in hand. "The benefits of the fire-retardant qualities of deca just far outweigh any toxicity," Morton said.

Those concerns are shared by the Washington State Association of Fire Chiefs, which supports a version of the bill that calls for more study of deca, but not a ban. The Association of Washington Business, the state's chief business lobby, also opposes a ban.

Deca manufacturers challenge the claim that the chemical poses a health risk, noting that Europe, which generally has stricter regulations of chemicals, hasn't banned deca.

"It does not pose health risks and there are no risks in need of additional regulation," said John Kyte of the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, an industry-backed group fighting the ban.

Heather Stapleton, a Duke University researcher, has found that deca fed to trout and carp breaks down into other chemicals, including versions of Octa-BDE, one of the flame retardants found to be toxic in tests of lab animals. She hopes to study whether the same happens in humans.

If so, she said, it could pose a risk, particularly to infants who ingest house dust because they are frequently on the floor.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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