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Chemistry International
Vol. 23, No. 6
November 2001


New Publications from the World Health Organization

Flame Retardants: Tris(2-butoxyethyl) Phosphate, Tris(2-ethylhexyl) Phosphate, and Tetrakis(hydroxymethyl) Phosphonium Salts, Environmental Health Criteria No. 218, 2000, xix + 130 pages (English, with summaries in French and Spanish), ISBN 92-4-157218-3, CHF 30.-/ USD 27.00; In developing countries: CHF 21.-, Order No. 1160218.

This book evaluates the risks to human health and the environment posed by exposure to selected flame retardants, including chemicals widely used to treat textiles. Although data were inadequate to support a full scientific evaluation, the report reaches several preliminary conclusions concerning the likelihood of risks to human health.

Compounds are covered in separate monographs. Tris(2-butoxyethyl) phosphate (TBEP) is covered in the first. TBEP is used in floor polishes and as a plasticizer in rubber and plastics. Studies of concentrations in various environmental samples show that TBEP is readily biodegradable. Most potential exposure of the general population arises from the use of TBEP in packaging materials for food and from the possible contamination of drinking-water from synthetic rubbers used in plumbing washers. The report concludes that exposure from both sources is very low. The risk to workers, exposed by the dermal route during manufacturing, was likewise judged to be very low. Studies in experimental animals indicate that the liver is the target organ for TBEP toxicity. Data on other toxic effects were judged to be weak or inconsistent.

Tris(2-ethylhexyl) phosphate (TEHP) is covered in the second monograph. TEHP is used as a flame retardant, a plasticizer for polyvinyl chloride and cellulose acetate, and a solvent. While the compound has not been detected in outdoor air, some studies have found concentrations in indoor air. The limited data on environmental fate indicate that the compound is rapidly biodegraded in natural waters. In experimental animals, the compound demonstrates low acute toxicity. Studies conducted in rats revealed no toxic effects. Although some long-term studies suggest carcinogenic potential, the report concludes that TEHP does not represent a significant carcinogenic risk to humans. In studies conducted in human volunteers, no skin irritation was reported. The report concludes that the risk to both the general population and occupationally exposed workers is very low.

The final and most extensive monograph evaluates tetrakis(hydroxymethyl) phosphonium (THP) salts.

These compounds are the major class of chemicals used as flame retardants for cotton, cellulose, and cellulose-blend fabrics. Data were considered inadequate to support an evaluation of effects on the environment. Studies conducted in animals show moderate acute toxicity and low dermal toxicity. The liver is the main target organ for toxic effects in experimental animals. The report found no convincing evidence that fabrics treated with THP salts are mutagenic or carcinogenic. Concerning possible migration from textiles, the report cites evidence that the flame retardant polymer is not released during cleaning processes that would normally be employed by consumers.

All three monographs conclude with a list of further studies needed to support a full scientific evaluation.




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