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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Stopping the Use of Toxic and Unnecessary Flame Retardant Chemicals Will Protect Our Health and Environment

By Arlene Blum, PhD

This essay is in response to: What emerging environmental hazard should be next on the policy agenda?

Lurking in our couches, nursing pillows and televisions are pounds of toxic flame retardant chemicals.  These substances are from the same family and similar in structure to organohalogen pesticides such as DDT, Dieldrin and Mirex.  While those pesticides were banned in the 1980’s, and the levels contaminating our food supply are finally decreasing, the use of their chemical cousins, the halogenated flame retardants, is doubling every few years.  This is a relatively easy problem to solve with enormous potential to benefit the health of every creature on the planet. 

The problems with most organohalogen flame retardants are their high persistence, tendency to bioaccumulate, and toxicity.  Levels in humans and wild animals worldwide have been rapidly increasing and creatures at the top of the food chain such as marine mammals, birds of prey, polar bears, and nursing babies bear the highest burdens. 

Adverse health effects in animals are well documented in a body of peer-reviewed literature. Human epidemiology studies have found associations between increased flame retardant levels and reduced IQ in children, endocrine and thyroid disruption, changes in male hormone levels and reduced fertility, increased time to become pregnant in women, adverse birth outcomes, and impaired development. It is very unusual, to find so many adverse human associations from consumer exposure to a chemical.  Most human epidemiological data comes from occupational exposures. 

Babies and young children, with rapidly developing brains and nervous systems, are the most vulnerable to toxics and have much higher levels of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDEs) flame retardants than adults. Infants are born with flame retardants in their bodies, receive additional exposure from breast milk, and can ingest dust containing the chemicals due to hand-to-mouth contact.

Despite bans on some halogenated flame retardants, large amounts of upholstered furniture, electronics, carpet padding, and automobiles containing these chemicals are still in use and will need to be disposed of after their lifetimes, creating outdoor reservoirs, such as in landfills and water treatment plants, for the future dispersal into the environment and food supply.

While we continue to risk our health through exposure to these retardants, they do not provide measurable fire protection. From 1980 to 1999, states that did not regulate furniture flammability experienced declines in fire death rates similar to that

seen in California (1) which has a unique requirement for flame retardants in furniture and baby product foam. While retardants may decrease the time for a material to ignite by a few seconds, they increase the carbon monoxide, toxic gases, and smoke that contribute to most fire deaths and injuries.  More effective fire safety strategies include decreased smoking, fire-safe cigarettes, fire-safe candles, and the increased use of sprinklers and smoke detectors.  These can prevent fires without adding potentially hazardous chemicals to consumer products.

The scientific data is overwhelming. Hundreds of chemists, epidemiologists, and toxicologists, worldwide who study the accumulation and health effects of halogenated flame retardants meet annually at the Brominated Flame Retardant meetings and Dioxin Meeting on POPS to share their research.  Named after  the Dioxin 2010 gathering in September in San Antonio Texas, he San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame Retardants, a consensus statement documenting the harm and lack of fire safety benefit of these widespread pollutants, has been signed by more than 150 scientists and physicians from 22 countries. See http://greensciencepolicy.org/node/269 and an accompanying editorial by Linda Birnbaum and Ake Bergman is at http://www.ehponline.org/article/info:doi/10.1289/ehp.1003088.

However, the consensus among the scientists who study these chemicals has not reached the public.  Most consumers have no idea that the foam in their couch or nursing pillow is likely to contain about 5% by weight of endocrine disrupting chemicals that can m stay in their children’s bodies for years with the potential to cause great harm. If informed, they can act to protect their families by avoiding the toxic products, taking precautionary measures to reduce exposure, and supporting policies to reduce the unnecessary use of flame retardants.

So given all their downsides, why are we continuing to use halogenated flame retardants at increasing levels?  Chemtura, Albermarle, and Israeli Chemicals Limited, the three chemical manufacturers who produce the chemicals, employ lobbyists and spend millions of dollars at the state and federal level to initiate and maintain flammability standards that are favorable to their industry. The huge profitability of the sale of these chemicals appears to be a major driver for their use.  For example, Albemarle’s quarterly earnings more than quadrupled in 2009 compared to 2008 “powered by an increase in the sales of brominated flame retardants.”   Despite the monetary influence possessed by this industry, only three companies produce these chemicals.  These companies need public pressure to move to safer alternatives.

An important first step to protect our health would be to change California’s antiquated furniture flammability standard TB117 which requires polyurethane foam in juvenile products and upholstered furniture to withstand exposure to a small open flame for 12 seconds.  Since its implementation in 1975, halogenated flame retardants have been added to foam furniture sold in California at levels of about five per cent of the weight of the foam with no proven fire safety benefit.  Four years of legislative attempts to alter this standard to provide increased fire safety without toxicity were stymied by well financed lobbying from the chemical manufacturers.

The flame retardant issue is a poster child for the importance of reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  For the first time since 1976, there is currently legislation in both the House and Senate (The Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 and The Toxic Chemical Safety Act of 2010), to give the EPA authority to regulate the use of hazardous chemicals like flame retardants, ensure safer replacement chemicals, and require manufacturers to submit information proving the safety of chemical in advance of their entering the market.

Stopping the unneeded use of organohalogen flame retardants would help prevent cancer, neurologic, reproductive, thyroid, endocrine, and developmental impairments in our population.  It is time to utilize the overwhelming scientific evidence to take action to protect our health, and especially the health of our children.  Please check out our website at www.greensciencepolicy.org to learn more.

Comments

P.Harris-Swenson, MA, IBCLC, LN said ..

Might there be a connection between these and other chemicals in baby mattresses that cause SIDS. A New Zeland study regarding the use of covers on baby mattresses to eliminate chemical fumes, decreased SIDS deaths considerably

February 26, 2011
P.Harris-Swenson, MA, IBCLC, LN said ..

Might there be a connection between these and other chemicals in baby mattresses that cause SIDS. A New Zeland study regarding the use of covers on baby mattresses to eliminate chemical fumes, decreased SIDS deaths considerably

February 26, 2011
Lynn Carroll said ..

Contrary to Dr Christofersen, candles are commonly used (seems like most stores have a candle section), and candle holders that are SAFE (untippable, unslide-able, unbreakable, non-flammable, and inaccessible to pets and children) are very hard to find. I suspect many fires are due to unsafe candle-holders.

November 10, 2010
David Greene said ..

How do you know if flame retardant is part of the furniture and are alternatives available.

November 5, 2010
Richard Weiskopf said ..

Very interesting and informative. Thank you.

November 5, 2010
Howard Christofersen, MD said ..

Obviously flame retardants should no longer be used. Stopping smoking is so much more effective. Open flames like candles are now rarely used.

November 4, 2010
Daniel Kerlinsky MD said ..

Halons in fire extinguishers cause inhalation lung and brain damage that is evident on lung X-ray and brain MRI, especially in Air Force firemen who set pit fires of toxic chemicals - and then put out the fires with halon fire extinguishers ...standing in the pit! We have a class action lawsuit starting in Albuquerque. Contact me if you want to help or to learn more about the military use of halons in jets and other high-tech applications that keep these chemicals protected by the federal government.

November 4, 2010
susan nichols said ..

thank you. This was very informative. Do you have any information on other states' policy on these retardants?

November 4, 2010

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