IJC Recommends Actions To Keep Toxic Flame Retardants Out Of Great Lakes

Jul 18, 2018

The International Joint Commission - or IJC - was created by the Boundary Waters Treaty signed by the United States and Canada in 1909. The commission is tasked with preventing conflicts between the two countries' shared waters, including the Great Lakes.

Last week the IJC released a paper that lays out five action steps designed to assist the two countries as they coordinate efforts to keep Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and other toxic flame retardants out of the Lakes.

Lana Pollack, who chairs the U.S. section of the IJC, says, "It is critical to address the dangers flame retardants represent to both the Great Lakes themselves and the people who share their waters." 

Currently, many of the existing programs that address these chemicals differ across jurisdictions. Together, they represent a patchwork policy network that fails to account for the dangers of the chemicals and the jurisdictional challenges of regulating the Great Lakes.  

Although the Great Lakes serve as a resource to many states, as well as Canadian provinces, much of the responsibility for managing the waters falls on municipalities, says Pollack.

"But it is really at the federal level and the state level that we need to have collaboration, coordination, and some sort of integration of protections," she says. 

Commissioner Lana Pollack at the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences in October, 2016. It was one of places the IJC gathered scientific and public comments as the report was drafted.
Credit Susan Bence

The IJC’s report calls for a comprehensive and integrated binational approach. The interconnectedness of the Great Lakes region necessitates this approach, Pollack says.

“This is addressed not just to the federal governments but very much so also to the states, the provinces, the tribal governments and all of them say that if you fix it in Wisconsin but you don’t fix it in in Minnesota or Michigan, you really haven’t fixed it.”

In addition to increased coordination between jurisdictions, the report also calls for greater responsibility for the companies that create products containing these chemicals. The report calls for governments to work with industries and other stakeholders to develop an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program.

Pollack says it is important to consider solutions for the chemicals already in the Great Lakes, but prevention is the key in the future.

"We are stuck with chemicals that are in the water right now and we need to research, and apply and invest in ways to protect ourselves against that. But more than ever, we need to prevent them from going in in the first place. And virtually always, it's cheaper to prevent than to remove and clean."

Specifically, the IJC’s report includes five recommendations, summarized here:

  1. Ensure flammability standards for products and structures, toxicity standards for flame retardants, and redesign options for products
  2. Educate the public on the products containing PBDEs and how they can reduce the associated risks
  3. Research to increase understanding of the implications of recycling and disposal methods for products containing flame retardants
  4. Improve product labelling through mechanisms such as barcode scanning apps on phones
  5. Develop an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program for flame retardant-containing products