In December, China brought an end to the production, use, import and export of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), an organic compound containing bromine used as a flame retardant in external thermal insulation foam.
Since the 1980s, HBCD has commonly been used to improve the fire protection of buildings. But, in 2013, it was listed in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants because of the high risk it poses to human health. Exposure to HBCD has potential adverse effects on the functioning of the hormone, nervous and immune systems.
HBCD has been found in sewage sludge, in fish, in air, water and soil. Famously, in 2004, the World Wildlife Fund took blood samples from eleven European environment ministers and three health ministers, and detected HBCD in the blood of every single one of them.
To reduce health risks, countries have taken measures to prohibit HBCD production and eliminate remaining stocks. China officially ratified the Stockholm Convention amendment at the end of 2016 but was granted a five-year-long exemption for expanded and extruded polystyrene foams.
To prepare for the December 2021 deadline to completely end HBCD production in China, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) jointly developed a project with Foreign Environmental Cooperation Centre of China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment. The project was approved for funding by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in June 2019.
In the eastern province of Shandong, where China's HBCD production has been concentrated, the UNIDO project has improved the supervision and management of HBCD, and conducted demonstration activities on how to substitute, reduce and phase out HBCD.
UNIDO project manager, Carmela Centeno, noted that the project not only helped achieve the elimination of production and use of the dangerous chemical but, importantly, has evaluated and developed alternatives to it.
By November 2021, the eight remaining HBCD production sites in China - all located in the city of Weifang - had been dismantled and the wastewater, residue and garbage containing HBCD generated in the process of equipment dismantling had been disposed of according to hazardous waste specifications.
Rolph Payet, Executive Secretary of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions (BRS), thanked China for its important leadership in implementing the Stockholm Convention and for working to phase out HBCD production and to introduce alternatives in the manufacturing of products that use/contain HBCD.
Payet also mentioned however that HBCD will continue to be a problem in the years to come because expanded and extruded polystyrene foams manufactured in the past are still in use and will have to be disposed of when buildings are refurbished or demolished material. Although the production of HBCD has now ceased, the UNIDO project is continuing with a focus on the environmentally sound management of HBCD-containing construction waste.