​​​​​​​​​​Relevance of the indicator

Hazardous substances assessment

The status of hazardous substances is assessed using several core indicators. Each indicator focuses on one important aspect of the complex issue. In addition to providing an indicator-based evaluation of the concentration of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), this indicator will also contribute to the overall hazardous substances assessment along with the other hazardous substances core indicators.

Policy Relevance

The polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have mainly been used as flame retardants in plastic materials and polyurethane foams. PBDEs are diphenyl ethers with different degrees of bromination varying from 2 to 10. PentaBDEs refer to the congeners 82–127, 47 and 99 being the most abundant, octaBDEs refer to the congeners 194–205 and decaBDEs mainly refers to the congener 209.

PBDEs are on the HELCOM BSAP priority list and in the Stockholm Convention Annex A (Elimination). The use of substance groups pentaBDE and octaBDE is banned in the EU since 2004 (Commission regulation EC 552/2009). PentaBDE and octaBDE are not allowed to be placed on the market as substances, in mixtures or in articles in higher concentration than 0.1 % by weight. The substance group decaBDE that is restricted but not completely banned, is currently found in biota and is able to degrade into lower brominated congeners. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has encouraged countries to also monitor decaBDE.

The substance groups pentaBDE and octaBDE have been prioritised through two consecutive prioritisation procedures under the WFD: pentaBDE were prioritised following COMMPS (Combined Monitoring-based and Modelling-based Priority Setting scheme) procedure in 2001, while octaBDE was prioritised in the context of the second European Commission proposal for a new list of priority substances, for the reason that they are PBT (Persistent, Bioaccumulative and Toxic) and vPvB (very Persistent and very Bioaccumulative) substances.

The use of PBDEs in electrical and electronic products (E&Es) was restricted even earlier than 2004 by the Directive 2002/95/EC (RoHS). From June 30, 2008, this directive covers also decaBDE. This implies that the only permitted use of PBDEs in Europe is now the application of decaBDE in products other than E&Es. As a result of this new regulation, the majority of the previous use of decaBDE in the EU is now prohibited (corresponding to ca 80 percent of the total EU use in 2001). It is, however, still possible for industries to apply for exemptions for certain applications under the procedure laid out in article 5 of the RoHS Directive.

PentaBDE is now included in Annex A (Elimination) in the Stockholm Convention and should no longer be on the EU market as well as hexaBDE and heptaBDE contained in octaBDE. In 2017, DecaBDE was added in Annex A with specific exemptions.

role of PBDEs in the ecosystem

General properties

PBDEs with smaller molecules are more toxic and bioaccumulative than larger ones. The biotic and abiotic debromination of highly brominatedPBDEs, such as decaBDE, to these smaller forms is a possibility and justifies that monitoring is based on a broad set of congeners. All PBDEs are hydrophobic or very hydrophobic substances, that are very likely to adsorb on particulate matter and not likely to volatilize from the water phase. The higher the bromination degree, the lower the water solubility. Therefore decaBDE is found only in low concentrations in fish, in contrast to lower-brominatedPBDEs which are more commonly found in marine organisms. PBDEs have the potential to photodegrade in the environment.

The occurrence of PBDEs is widespread in the Baltic marine environment. It is probable that current legislative measures (penta- and octaBDE banned in the EU since 2004) have already decreased penta- and octaBDE levels in the Baltic Sea.

According to EU-RAR (2000), concentrations increased with the age of the fish and were higher in seals than in fish in the Baltic Sea, indicating bioaccumulation and biomagnification.

DecaBDE (BDE 209) is the dominant congener from sources (e.g. WWTPs) and in the Baltic Sea sediments; it can also be found in Baltic Sea fish, although tetraBDE is the most dominant congener in biota. Levels of decaBDE may be increasing because its use is only partly restricted. However, because of the environmental problems of decaBDE and anticipating regulatory measures, the European industry has taken voluntary action to reduce releases of decaBDE. This would be expected to lead – over time – to decreasing concentrations.

Main impacts on the environment and human health

PBDEs are categorized as endocrine disrupters (Category 2) for animals and humans. This means that the substances have the potential to disrupt endocrine functions, such as hormone regulation in the organisms. PBDEs have been shown to have endocrine-disrupting effects, in particular, on estrogen and thyroid hormone levels and functioning. It has been shown to disturb development of the nervous system.

Human pressures linked to the indicator

 ​GeneralMSFD Annex III, Table 2a
Strong link

Substances, litter and energy

- Input of other substances (e.g.  synthetic substances, non-synthetic substances, radionuclides)- diffuse sources, point sources, atmospheric deposition, acute events

Weak link

PBDEs mainly spread to the Baltic Sea via the atmosphere, rivers and waste water treatment plants (WWTPs). PBDEs are mainly discharged from landfills and waste sorting sites or emitted via atmosphere to the environment. The substances accumulate on waste sites as a result of production and use of flame-protected materials. More information on the occurrence of penta-, octa- and deca-BDE discharges is needed from the whole Baltic Sea area also including from WWTPs.