Fanning the Flames With Fire Retardants

In a reckless, "hope-for-the-best" approach that puts us all at risk, U.S. policy allows the release of synthetic chemicals into the environment -- before their potentially devastating impacts have been adequately evaluated. Multiple Senate bills to fix this toxic system over the past decade have been snuffed out.

On July 24, 2014, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced a bill, the "Protecting American Families from Toxic Chemicals Act" (S. 2656), which would ban a number of "persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic" synthetic chemicals such as brominated fire (or flame) retardants (BFRs).

BFRs are chemicals used to reduce the flammability of consumer products. In the early 1970s, the increasing use of flammable materials such as plastics, synthetic fibers and polyurethane foam led to the widespread use of BFRs. BFRs are added to couches and upholstered chairs; mattresses, pads and futons; carpet padding; fabrics; electronics; building materials; and children's products such as booster seats, changing table pads and crib mattresses.

BFRs enter our bodies mainly when we inhale or swallow dust. Various BFRs have been linked to cancer, thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, early puberty and reduced fertility. Ironically, BFRs start "fires" in our bodies by causing inflammation.

Citizens have endured a parade of poorly studied BFRs. When one is found to cause problems, it is switched out for another, which invariably is also found to cause problems. In 1977, brominated tris (TDBPP) was banned from use in children's pajamas after the National Cancer Institute showed that it causes tumors in laboratory animals. Tris was replaced by another closely related BFR, TDCIPP, which later was phased out of use in children's sleepwear due to similar concerns. Even though TDCIPP causes tumors in animals -- and the State of California lists it as a known carcinogen and the Consumer Product Safety Commission classifies it as a probable human carcinogen --TDCIPP is still widely used. In 2011, the U.S. manufactured or imported 10 to 50 million pounds of TDCIPP. As another example, in 2004, when certain highly toxic BFRs were pulled from the U.S. market, other concerning BFRs took their place.

Worldwide demand for BFRs skyrocketed from 526 million pounds in 1983 to 3.4 billion pounds in 2009, and BFRs are now nearly ubiquitous in our world. They are in peanut butter, bacon, salmon, chili, sliced lunch meat; honey from Brazil, Morocco, Spain and Portugal; Antarctic penguins; Arctic orca whales; North American kestrels and barn owls; bird eggs in Spain; fish in Canada; and in tree bark samples worldwide.

From samples collected in 2003-2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 97 percent of Americans had BFRs in their blood; Americans 12 to 19 years old had the highest levels. Blood levels of certain BFRs doubled in adults every 2 to 5 years between 1970 and 2004. Levels have not since declined, even though some BFRs have been pulled from the market. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations among infants in the world.

These exposures and their negative health effects have been for naught. Recent studies by government scientists and others suggest that BFRs do not protect consumers from fire. Furthermore, during a fire, BFRs generate invisible toxic gases -- which are the leading cause of death in fires. More than half of all line-of-duty deaths in firefighting are now caused by cancer, and many firefighters believe that BFRs are a major cause. The St. Paul, Minnesota fire department is backing a state bill that would require manufacturers to report to the government which products contain BFRs, as a first step in addressing the problem. Firefighters from Stockton and San Gabriel recently implored the California legislature and governor to eliminate BFRs, testifying that "These chemicals don't offer much fire protection -- they just add to the toxic exposure faced by firefighters and the citizens we serve."

If BFRs don't work and cause so much damage -- and even firefighters don't want them -- why are they still manufactured? In 2012, the Chicago Tribune reported that BFR manufacturers "worked to preserve a lucrative market for their products" in a "decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.... These powerful industries distorted science in ways that overstated the benefits of the chemicals." They also "created a phony consumer watchdog group that stoked the public's fear of fire."

According to the Tribune, the watchdog group Citizens for Fire Safety (CFS) described itself as "a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders, united to ensure that our country is protected by the highest standards of fire safety." Yet the (now defunct) CFS had only three members: the largest flame retardant manufacturers. The Tribune also reported that a prominent burn doctor and star witness for the manufacturers repeatedly told stories -- in testimony to state legislators -- of babies dying in fires due to a lack of BFRs. The doctor reportedly told the Tribune that his testimony was "an anecdotal story rather than anything which I would say was absolutely true under oath, because I wasn't under oath." Furthermore, the CFS web site claimed that the organization was conducting studies with the International Association of Fire Fighters, whose spokesman told to the Tribune, "They are lying. They aren't working with us on anything."

Continued BFR manufacture is enabled by the antiquated and toothless federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 -- which protects hazardous chemicals from citizens rather than protecting citizens from hazardous chemicals. The law allows manufacturers to sell chemicals, typically without evaluating them for safety and to conceal the names and physical properties of chemicals from government agencies and consumers. The law places a heavy burden of proof on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to show harm, rather than on manufacturers to show safety. The EPA acknowledges that it knows little, if anything, about most of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial use, and has banned only a handful. The Obama administration launched an investigation of 20 BFRs last year, but the EPA is encountering limitations of the Toxic Substances Control Act that make it "practically impossible" to ban hazardous chemicals.

Policies in Europe are more human-friendly -- for example, requiring testing and evidence of safety before chemicals are sold. Perhaps this explains why a 2008 study found that BFR levels in American mothers were 75 times those found in European studies.

Many U.S. citizens erroneously assume that the U.S. government protects them from toxic chemicals. On the contrary, the government stands by as chemicals that are used to solve one problem can create many others -- while not even solving their target problem and, indeed, sometimes making it worse. States and citizens have had to fend for themselves. Thirty-four states have passed chemical restrictions of some kind, and California, Washington and Maine have banned BFRs.

Protection at the federal level is needed -- to provide universal protection of citizens and uniform rules for industry. We need to fix the Toxic Substances Control Act to incorporate the "precautionary principle," which would require manufacturers to prove that their chemicals are safe before they are put into use.

Concerned citizens can signal their desire for real reform by signing petitions drafted by the Environmental Working Group: one opposes the inadequate "Chemical Safety Improvement Act"; another opposes the "Chemicals in Commerce Act," which would continue giving chemicals a "green light" without adequate review. Citizens can also tell their senators to support the "Protecting American Families from Toxic Chemicals Act," S. 2656, to ban at least some of the worst chemicals. As long as manufacture of BFRs continues, contamination of the entire biosphere increases.

Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information on her website.