The push to rid our bodies and the environment of toxic flame retardants just got a powerful boost from a major health care system, according to experts.
Kaiser Permanente, the largest U.S. nonprofit health management organization, announced Tuesday it will stop buying furniture treated with the chemicals, still common in homes, offices and child care centers throughout the U.S. Flame retardants have been linked to cancer, reproductive disorders and brain damage in children, among other ills.
"Our mission is the health of our patients and of our communities -- and that mission includes paying attention to pollutants that can cause illness," Kathy Gerwig, vice president and environmental stewardship officer at Kaiser Permanente, said during a media call on Tuesday. "We are the first health care system to make this change," she added, "but we expect many more announcements to be forthcoming."
Kaiser alone wields significant purchasing power. Roughly $30 million a year is spent to furnish its 38 hospitals and 600 medical office buildings in eight states, as well as the District of Columbia.
Health experts and advocates cheered the news, which follows a California law enacted Jan. 1 that dissolves a decades-old state requirement -- and the de facto U.S. standard -- that flame retardants be included in the filling of upholstered furniture. An investigation by the Chicago Tribune in 2012 showed that the additives may offer no meaningful fire protection.
"The new groundbreaking standard means flame retardants are no longer needed, but it doesn't ban them in any way," said Arlene Blum, a University of California at Berkeley chemist. "So manufacturers have to make a decision about whether or not they're going to take them out."
Influencing that decision, said Blum, are other moves around the country that could lead to new flammability standards. The efforts have been championed by the flame retardant industry since California's new law. Furniture manufacturers are also likely eyeing a lawsuit filed by one leading flame retardant-maker, Chemtura, against the state of California, in an effort to bring back the old standard that led to the use of the chemicals. Chemtura did not respond to a request for comment.
No furniture manufacturer wants to change its production process, then have to change it back in again, Blum noted.
"The manufacturers I know all really want to take flame retardants out, but they are worried," Blum added. "So, when someone like Kaiser tells them, 'We're not going to buy your products unless you take them out,' then they take them out."
Blum said she anticipates Kaiser's decision eventually will affect flame retardants in homes and other places Americans work and play. A study published in May found flame retardants in 100 percent of dust samples collected from 40 child care centers in California.
"Hospitals and day care centers are places where there's no smoking and not a known fire hazard. We're exposing our most vulnerable young children and ill people to harmful chemicals that aren't even providing a benefit. It's just foolish," said Blum.
The evidence that flame retardants can pose harm to human health, especially children's, has mounted in recent years. Another study, also published in May, found that a mother's exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, during early pregnancy and after a baby is born could harm her child's developing brain. A 10-fold increase in exposure to the flame retardant resulted, according to the study, in an average drop of 4.5 points in IQ, as well as a rise in hyperactivity -- findings consistent with previous research.
Bruce Lanphear, an environmental health expert at Simon Frasier University in British Columbia and author on the report, said the toxic insults are "comparable" to the known effects of lead.
Like leaded household paint, PBDEs are now broadly banned, but exist widely in older furniture, carpet padding, car seats and other consumer products. Experts caution that flame retardant chemicals used by manufacturers in place of PBDEs, such as Firemaster 550, now show signs of being at least as toxic.
Kaiser Permanente intends to avoid purchasing products that contain any type of chemical flame retardant, including Firemaster 550 and others that remain approved for use.
The pledge by the company, and any similar moves by other organizations, are "important," said Lanphear. But he emphasized that the problem will remain unsolved.
"For something like PBDE, a persistent pollutant, the cost will be born by at least the next generation or more," he said. "After it's already out there, it's really hard to put the genie back in the bottle."
Flame retardants are just one ingredient in the toxic soup that pervades the environment of most Americans, driving up spending at hospitals, including those in Kaiser Permanente's system. Mercury, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and BPA's increasingly used replacement, bisphenol S, are among the other chemicals and heavy metals facing increased scrutiny.
The cost for diseases and disabilities tied to toxins "never get put into the equation" of sky-high health care costs, Lanphear said.
Gary Cohen, president and founder of Health Care Without Harm and the Healthier Hospitals Initiative, recognized the need for broader changes.
"We understand that policy change is needed to reform our nation's toxic chemical laws. They are 40 years out of date," said Cohen, referring to the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which allows chemicals on to market with little or no proof of safety. A proposed amendment, the Chemicals in Commerce Act, is pending in the House, but has been chided by health advocates as too weak.
"In the absence of federal reform, we're going to continue to push the marketplace and get health care to lead by example to phase out these toxic chemicals," Cohen said during Tuesday's media call. "Health care professionals are some of the most respected members of our society -- so when they engage in policy efforts they are listened to more than others."