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Ban Organohalogen Flame Retardants Now!

Posted by Kathy Attar, MPH on September 14, 2017

flame retardants, toxics

Kathy Attar, Toxics Program Manager at Physicians for Social Responsibility, testified recently before the Consumer Product Safety Commission, urging them to ban harmful organohalogen flame retardants in children's products, furniture, mattresses and electronic casings. Here is Kathy's testimony:

Many of our members are health professionals who care deeply about the health of communities and believe prevention is the answer to rising disease rates and health care costs. PSR has a long history of educating, organizing, and advocating around the issue of toxic chemicals and their link to poor health.

PSR strongly supports the petition that a broad coalition of health, environmental and public interest groups submitted to the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2015 that seeks to ban organohalogen flame retardants from children's products, furniture, mattresses and household electronics.

I'm a mom of two children, Farah age 8 and Alex age 5. As a parent, you are determined to do whatever you can to ensure your children are safe.

When my daughter was younger she put everything in her mouth, as most babies and toddlers do. I mean everything—toys, TV remotes, books—anything that fit. During this time, through my work as an environmental health advocate, I started to learn about health dangers related to certain chemicals in consumer products. Chemicals like harmful flame retardants. Flame retardants are linked to an ever-increasing number of health concerns such as cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. Many persist in the environment and can bio-accumulate, meaning that levels increase as they move up food chains.[1] As most flame retardants are not chemically bonded to the consumer product, they can continuously migrate out of products and into indoor environments. The main route of exposure to these harmful chemicals is believed to be through ingestion and inhalation of contaminated indoor dust.[2] 

Children of color and low-income kids bear a higher burden from these chemicals than others—a fact that raises serious concerns about environmental injustice.[3] Not everyone can go to stores in their communities which may sell less-toxic products or can afford to purchase safer items.

One of my son's favorite toys is our couch—it's a flat-bed truck or a cargo ship or a castle. Unfortunately, the couch was purchased several years before California issued its new safer furniture flammability standards (which no longer require the use of chemical flame retardants) so it undoubtedly has toxic flame retardants in it. I'm pretty obsessive about wet mopping our living room but there is little doubt my kids have been exposed to some level of dust containing these hazardous chemicals.

The average lifetime of a couch is 15-20 years per owner, and couches are often passed on to others—purchased at a second-hand or thrift store perhaps by a low-income family where they are used for many more years. Flame retardants in furniture are a prime example of the hazardous legacy of inadequate chemical regulations.

Organohalogen flame retardants are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) which mean they can mimic or inhibit the action of naturally occurring hormones. Exposures to EDCs during critical times of growth and development can result in genetic modifications that are passed down to subsequent generations. Endocrine-related disease is on the rise:

  • Neurobehavioral disorders associated with thyroid disruption have increased over the past decades.
  • Rates of endocrine-related cancers (breast, ovarian, prostate, and thyroid) have been increasing over the past 50 years.[4]

The speed with which the increases in disease incidence have occurred in recent decades rules out genetic factors as the sole explanation for why we are seeing more cancers and neurobehavioral disorders.

We need binding regulatory change that, by keeping toxic chemicals out of our products and our lives, can reduce the risk of chronic diseases for all families and individuals no matter your race or socioeconomic status. It is not enough that use of halogenated flame retardants is going down. We need the CPSC to take steps that will ensure that organohalogen flame retardant chemicals are removed from imported, low-cost products and other items in which they are still used.

Flame retardants are not needed to prevent fire and improve overall safety in the four product categories outlined in the petition—children's products, mattresses, furniture and household electronics. So, there is no reason to continue exposing children and other consumers to these hazardous substances. Parents want and need the government to step in much more robustly to protect the health of all families.

[1] Shaw SD, Blum A, Weber R, Kannan K, Rich D, Lucas D, Koshland CP, Dobraca D, Hanson S, Birnbaum LS. Halogenated flame retardants: do the fire safety benefits justify the risks? Rev Environ Health. 2010 Oct-Dec;25(4):261-305)

[2] Lorber M. Exposure of Americans to polybrominated diphenyl ethers. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2008 Jan;18(1):2-19



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