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