Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) are organobromide compounds that have been used commercially since the 1950s to inhibit the combustibility of various commercial products. They are, or have been used, on plastic and textiles in electronics, clothes and furniture products. Unfortunately they don’t remain completely within these products and can leak into the air, water and soil during use, or in the waste stream. These compounds adhere to fat and are bioaccumlative, being found in fish, meat, milk and derived products.1


According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) there are five main classes of BFR:

  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
  • Hexabromocylododecanes (HBCDDs)
  • Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) and its derivatives
  • Polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) and their derivates
  • Other emerging and novel BFRs

BFRs have been found in the blood of most people and in animals. They may interfere with the normal function of the hormone systems and may cause severe adverse effects on children’s development. The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives’ 2005 study on PBDEs concluded that more research is necessary.2

Some of these compounds have been banned. In 2003-2004, PentaBDE and OctaBDE were banned by the State of California and then phased out of US production. They have also been banned in the EU since 2004.

PBBs are listed as one of the six controlled substances under the Reach of Hazardous Substance Directive (RoHS) enacted February 2003. They are no longer produced and used in Europe and have been banned in the US since 1976.3

The 160 plus country membership of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) have voted to ban HBCDDs and eliminate their use. In 2009 they also banned PentaBDE and TetraBDE.4 This ban prevents other countries from developing new uses for the chemical or adopting its use.5 HBCDDs are already on the EU REACH program as chemicals of high concern and are to be phased out by 2015. Currently, other compounds, such as decaBDE are being studied and others may be banned in the future.


Some studies of BFRs in food have been performed over the years. In a 2008-2009 US market basket study of 31 foods (310 samples), noted total concentrations of PBDE varied by food type, ranging from; 12 parts per trillion (ppt) in whole milk, 1,545 ppt in canned sardines to 6,211 ppt in butter. HBCDDs varied by food group from a low of 23 ppt in canned beef chilli to 593 ppt in canned sardines.6

In a study performed in 2006 in Catalonia, Spain, fish and shellfish were measured at 563.9 ppt, oils and fats at 359.3 ppt and bakery products at 98.8 ppt. EFSA has performed studies and recommended that there be continued review. On 3 March 2014, the European Commission recommendation 2014/118/EU7 asked Member states to monitor for traces of BFRs over the next two years. In 2007, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) released their survey of 35 foods tested for PBDEs.8 Their study found levels of PBDEs in foods that were comparable to those noted in other countries.

Depending on the food matrix and the level of detection needed, BFRs can be tested for by using a Gas Chromatograph coupled with a Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) or Gas Chromatograph coupled with a High Resolution Mass Spectrometer (GS-HRMS).

For more information, please visit SGS Food Safety or contact:

Jim Cook
Food Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Manager
SGS North America, Inc.
t: +1 973 461 1493

  1. EFSA - Brominated Flame Retardants
  2. Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives
  3. EPA - Technical Fact Sheet - PBDEs and PBBs
  4. Listing of POPs in the Stockholm Convention
  5. U.N. Convention Bans Flame Retardant
  6. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and hexabromocyclodecane (HBCD) in U.S. food samples
  7. EU Commission Recommendation on the monitoring of traces of brominated flame retardants in food
  8. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE) in Food in Australia

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