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The Trouble with Bromine: Health and Environmental Impacts of Organobromine Compounds

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The bromine atom was a definitive constituent of a number of industrial chemicals that were produced in very large quantities and performed useful functions in society until unexpected environmental impacts emerged and international actions were taken to curb their effects. Change was slow in coming because it took roughly half a century for awareness to bring about change. Ethylene dibromide was a fuel additive that removed lead deposits from internal combustion engines using the octane enhancer tetraethyl lead. However, while bromine protected the engine, it released the lead into the environment, damaging the health of urban populations. Methyl bromide was the preeminent agricultural fumigant and bromofluoro-compounds were leading fire suppressants until they were phased out under the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer. Brominated flame retardants leaked out of plastic materials and migrated to cold regions, where they bioaccumulated along food chains and affected the development of birds and marine mammals. The worst offenders have now been banned under the Stockholm Convention. Industrial chemists have responded to these unexpected environmental impacts, which are examples of Rumsfeld's 'unknown unknowns', by creating safer but still effective alternatives. Continued environmental monitoring is needed to guard against more 'surprises'.
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Keywords: Montreal Protocol; Stockholm convention; brominated fire retardants; ethylene dibromide; halons; leaded gasoline; ozone depletion

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2014

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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