Jeff Foreman on August 10th, 2009
By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 7/1/2009
Amid the recent debate on fire standards for wood, plastic and composite pallets used in warehousing, a side issue arose that has further fanned the longstanding debate between wood and plastic pallet providers. A group of man-made flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs is drawing criticism from some consumer activists, scientists and regulators.
PBDEs can be found everywhere from consumer electronics and textiles to human breast milk to Arctic seals and local shorelines. Two forms were voluntarily phased out in 2005 due to toxicity concerns. A third formulation, deca bromine, was thought to be more stable and less toxic to people and the environment. Critics contend that deca bromide may not be as safe as first thought.
Some states are moving to ban the product for consumer goods. In 2007, Maine and Washington established bans on the chemical. Six other states, including California, are considering similar bans. Major consumer electronics manufacturers are switching to alternatives even though they may cost a little more.
CBS News reported in 2008 that the EPA's senior toxicologist Linda Birnbaum expressed concern about deca bromine. She said it causes serious health effects in young animals, which is a red flag for humans.
Supporters of fire retardants claim that the chemical saves lives by reducing fire hazards and that the toxicity risks are overstated. The real benefit of fire retardants may be more apparent for consumer items in homes than warehouse settings. In severe warehouse fires, the ignition source generally is great enough that a retardant has little effect. Remember that these chemicals just make it more difficult to catch fire with a low energy ignition source. Once ignited, a plastic pallet with a fire retardant will not burn significantly different than a plastic pallet without it.
FDA Points to Food Safety Concern
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently warned about the dangers of using pallets treated with deca bromine in the hydrocooling process for fruits and vegetables. Hydrocooling is a process where produce is cooled right after harvest to retain freshness and improve shelf life.
The consumer safety officer for the FDA, Dr. Elizabeth Sanchez Furukawa, recently responded to an inquiry about the use of pallets containing deca bromide in a hydrcooling situation. Specifically, produce was vertically stacked on pallets and cooled using either ice or water so that water drips from the topmost unit to those underneath. Since there is a risk that deca bromide could leech from the pallet, FDA commented that this scenario is a food additive situation requiring pre-market approval by the government. Deca bromine has not been authorized as a food additive. Thus, any situation where it could leech into the food would require further study to identify the real risks.
The FDA didn't really address the safety of deca bromine in a pallet used to store packaged or bulk food products or many other common shipping situations. The agency was merely responding to a specific situation, although it is one that is quite common for fresh produce.
The FDA raised concerns about the potential carcinogenic effect of deca bromine based on previous research. The agency sought more information from the product manufacturer.
The EPA stated, "There is growing evidence that PBDEs persist in the environment and accumulate in living organisms, as well as toxicological testing that indicates these chemicals may cause liver toxicity, thyroid toxicity, and neurodevelopmental toxicity."
Chemical manufacturers transitioned a few years ago to deca bromine because it was supposed to be more stable than other PBDEs. However, some research suggests that algae may be able to break down deca bromine in the environment. The growing presence of these man-made chemicals in nature indicates that leakage is a problem.
iGPS, the all-plastic pallet rental company, uses deca bromine as a flame retardant to lower the fire hazard associated with its pallet. iGPS denies any serious threat pointing to the widespread use of deca bromine. Company officials could not be reached for comment.
But iGPS stated on its Web site, "While over 1,000 tests over the course of many years have confirmed the safety of deca-bromine, we nonetheless commissioned independent laboratories to confirm its safety and suitability for our pallets. These tests showed conclusively that there is no detectable transfer of deca-bromine to foods-or even to food packaging-when shipped on an iGPS pallet."
Alternatives to Deca Bromide
The two major alternatives to deca bromine are phosphorous (commonly found in fertilizers) and magnesium hydroxide (the main active ingredient for milk of magnesia). As natural occurring minerals, there is far less ecological concern with these products than deca bromine. However, too much of even these "safer chemicals" is not necessarily good for the environment.
Scientists and water quality experts have commonly pointed to excess nitrogen and phosphorous as a major cause behind water quality issues in places such as the Chesapeake Bay. Excessive amounts of phosphorous can degrade lakes through eutrophication. Eutrophied lakes frequently experience noxious algal blooms, increased aquatic plant growth, and oxygen depletion, leading to degradation of their ecological, economic, and aesthetic value by restricting use for fisheries, drinking water, industry, and recreation.
iGPS may have opted for deca bromine because less of it is needed to treat a pallet than the other major alternatives. This lowers the weight and price of the pallet. Additionally, the extra amount of additives needed for phosphorous or magnesium hydroxide can make the pallet brittle, which can affect the long-term performance of the pallet.
I talked with representatives of CHEP USA, the other major pallet rental company that has tested various forms of plastic pallets. They told me that CHEP has never used deca bromine for its pallets. Currently, CHEP is testing a phosphorous additive in its pilot plastic pallet program.
The EPA stated, "The mechanisms or pathways through which PBDEs get into the environment and humans are not known yet." There are a number of possible sources - the processing of chemicals, food contamination, direct exposure during human use, leeching into the ground and water supply.
Despite a multitude of studies, there remain many concerns about the long-term effect of PBDEs accumulating in the environment and humans. With so many questions left to be answered, is it any wonder that deca bromine is falling out of favor, just like other PBDEs?
By contrast, wood pallets do not require any chemicals to be fire safe. Wood pallets offer a natural alternative to plastic that doesn't involve the use of harmful chemicals. With the potential public relations, legal and environmental risks associated with PBDEs, why would a product manufacturer want to ship on pallets that use deca bromine if a heat-treated, high quality wood pallet can offer similar performance without the toxicity concerns? That is the question that wood pallet companies are asking in light of the recent debate between iGPS and the wood pallet industry.
Pallet Wars - Round II
A situation is developing where the wood pallet industry finds itself competing in a public relations battle with plastic pallet providers, especially iGPS. There has always been a reasonable amount of competition between wood and plastic pallet suppliers. But it appears the friction has ratcheted up several notches with the entrance of iGPS into the market a few years ago.
The first round dealt with fire safety. The second round appears to be the toxicity concern. I believe the third round could be pallet performance.
The National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA) launched an aggressive educational campaign on the fire and toxicity issues. A war of words has taken place in the trade press and online publications between Bruce Scholnick, the president of the NWPCA, and Bob Moore, the CEO of iGPS.
Moore fired the latest salvo when he publicly challenged the wood pallet industry to an independent analysis of wood vs. plastic pallets. He said, "In their effort to defend antiquated, dangerous and flammable wood pallets, they scurrilously have attacked the fire-retardant in our pallets, Deca-bromine - one of the most effective, widely used and extensively tested fire retardants available."
Moore directly challenged CHEP to an independent comparison examining every aspect of the pallets, including fire safety, food safety, worker safety, environmental impact and operational performance. Moore called wood pallets "dangerous and flammable."
It is not clear if this war of words will have any true winners. The thought of an "independent" analysis is interesting. The only problem is that declaring a real winner between wood and plastic will be almost impossible because the two materials are so vastly different. Both wood and plastic have positives and negatives. The conclusions all depend on the assumptions made and what attributes are valued th
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