CHICAGO — For a class of troublesome flame retardants, this appeared to be the end of an era.
After years of study, scientists in the U.S. and Europe had reached an alarming conclusion: Flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, build up in blood and breast milk, interfere with natural hormones, trigger reproductive problems and cause developmental and neurological damage.
Under pressure from federal and state regulators, the leading makers of the chemicals stopped making two PBDEs in 2005 and vowed to shut down production of another by the end of next year.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also began pushing rules that would make it practically impossible to sell imported and recycled products made with the flame retardants. The rules are supported not only by health advocates and environmental groups but also by the three major manufacturers of PBDEs.
But after promoting the rules as a significant public health achievement, the EPA has delayed making them final amid fierce opposition from influential industries. Trade groups for automakers, military contractors, aerospace companies, appliance manufacturers and clothing companies are fighting behind the scenes in Washington to scrap the rules, postpone when they take effect or rewrite them to allow PBDEs in certain products.
Adding another twist to the debate, the Pentagon also is urging the EPA to back off.
The Chicago Tribune reported this year that federal officials have allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without thoroughly assessing health risks. The fight about PBDEs highlights how loopholes in federal law, along with opposition from corporations resistant to change, make it difficult for the government to ban toxic chemicals even when health effects are well-documented.
"If EPA doesn't do something to address imports, they aren't really going to solve this problem," said Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. "The agency is clearly trying to send signals to the market, but there is plenty of foot-dragging and complaining along the way."
If adopted, the EPA's proposed rules would be a major step toward eliminating chemicals that doubled in the blood of adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004 and have shown no signs of declining since then. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of PBDEs among infants in the world.
People ingest PBDEs — which have been widely used in furniture, electronics, textiles and plastics — after the chemicals escape from products and contaminate dust. Levels are especially high among breast-feeding infants and young children who play on the floor and often put things into their mouths.
Under the proposed rules, companies would be required to inform the EPA before making or importing new products containing PBDEs. Any firm that wants to use the flame retardants after December 2013 would first need to conduct extensive testing to prove its products are safe.
The three largest manufacturers of PBDEs — Albemarle Corp., Chemtura Corp. and ICL Industrial Products — have joined environmental and health groups in pushing for the rules. Now that the companies have agreed to stop making the chemicals, they say they want to prevent competitors from undermining the market for newer flame retardants.
"Albemarle is committed to delivering safe and effective products with increasingly smaller environmental footprints," David Clary, the chemical company's chief sustainability officer, wrote in a letter to the EPA.
Most of the opposition is focused on a PBDE known as deca, which is added to plastic enclosures in televisions, computers and other electronics, airplane and automobile interiors and parts, wire insulation and fire-resistant clothing.
Companies that use it have known since 2009 that Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL had pledged to stop making deca for most products at the end of 2012, and for military and transportation uses by the end of 2013.
Chemical-makers already are marketing alternatives. But in comments filed in the EPA's rule-making docket, trade groups for several industries say they need more time to find acceptable replacements for deca.
"These provisions are extraordinary and would have a substantial impact on many manufacturers selling products in the U.S.," wrote Filipa Rio, senior manager of environmental affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group that represents a dozen major car companies. "It is infeasible to eliminate all ongoing uses in automobiles by Dec. 31, 2013, despite ongoing phaseout efforts."
Chicago-based Boeing Co. said it could take another decade to test and certify deca alternatives for aircraft interiors and parts. To bolster its case for exempting the aerospace industry from the EPA's proposed rules, the company submitted a slide presentation to White House officials with images of charred passenger airplanes.
Several companies and trade groups said it would be too difficult and costly for them to guarantee their parts and products are PBDE-free. The complaint reflects a reality of modern manufacturing: Many U.S. companies rely on suppliers from countries where environmental regulations are more lenient.
"Because articles typically do not come with an ingredients list, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain whether an article contains any one of the . PBDEs," wrote Patricia Kablach Casano, a lawyer for General Electric Co.
The EPA said it is reviewing public comments before deciding what to do next. The agency in a prepared statement said it targeted products made with PBDEs because they are by far the chief way that people are exposed to the chemicals.