As the public has learned of health risks tied to chemicals in everyday products, many companies have responded by eliminating, one by one, the suspected cancer causers, brain damagers and hormone disruptors. But even prompt action doesn't entirely appease some health experts, who warn of a problematic pattern.
"We're playing toxic whack-a-mole," said Arlene Blum, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and executive director of the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute. "When after a great deal of research and testing, a chemical is found to be harmful, then the tendency is to replace it with as similar a chemical as possible. That's the easiest thing to do."
History has shown, however, that the substitutes may prove equally harmful. Take, for example, the widespread replacement of bisphenol A with bisphenol S in products such as hard plastic water bottles and cash register receipts. New research suggests the latter chemical may be just as harmful to human health.
On Tuesday, a coalition of medical, consumer and worker safety groups attempted to halt this cycle for flame retardants. Led by Blum's institute and Earthjustice, they produced a petition asking federal regulators to block an entire class of the chemical concoctions called organohalogens from their widespread use in four categories of consumer products.
When Congress banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in 1977 due to health concerns, the flame retardant industry replaced them with a chemical cousin, polybrominated diphenyl ether. When PBDE was discovered to be just as toxic, it was phased out in 2005, and the industry looked again for easily swappable substitutes to continue meeting flammability standards. Among the popular picks were chlorinated Tris and Firemaster 550, both of which have now been linked with their own growing lists of health concerns, including heart disease, obesity and cancer.
All of these chemicals are organohalogens, still the most common class of flame retardant additive. They can migrate out of consumer products to permeate, and persist in, the environment -- riding house dust, even infiltrating jars of peanut butter and the bloodstreams of nearly all Americans.
"The evidence is quite convincing that exposure in the womb to these flame retardants causes brain damage, lower IQs and persistent behavior problems in children," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of preventative medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
"It's just been one bad actor after another," added Landrigan, who signed the petition. "You'd think we'd be smart enough to do a little better."
In addition to developing fetuses and young children -- the latter of whom tend to crawl on dust-laden floors and put their hands in their mouths -- chemical and manufacturing workers and firefighters are at increased risk from exposure to flame retardants.
Tuesday's petition, aimed at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, targets four categories of consumer goods: children's products, furniture, mattresses and the casings around electronics. While chemicals themselves are generally under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency, they enter the CPSC's domain as part of a consumer product.
"This falls squarely within what CPSC is set up to do. They have the authority," said Eve Gartner, a staff attorney at Earthjustice. "In some ways, products with these flame retardants are like toys with small parts. They have inherent dangers. There's not really anything consumers can do to protect themselves against these chemicals."
Scott Wolfson, a CPSC spokesman, noted that the commission had received the petition. The next step, he said, is determining whether it "meets the requirements set out in the Commission's petition regulations."
"CPSC Chairman Elliot Kaye has said publicly that in the course of CPSC's work on issues like preparing a federal standard for upholstered furniture (which is ongoing), he does not want children to be exposed to harmful flame retardants," said Wolfson in an email.
He highlighted previous comments in which Kaye had lamented the lack of a "clear, systematic and holistic organization or plan to the way federal agencies are tasked with studying the basic toxicity and exposure scenarios of chemicals." That, combined with a "severe lack of federal funding as well as authorities to quickly and comprehensively address chemical toxicity and exposure," said Kaye, has forced agencies, including the CPSC, to "proceed in piecemeal fashion."
The American Chemistry Council, meanwhile, criticized the petition. "It's unfortunate these groups are presenting families with the false choice between chemical safety and fire safety when we can have both," the national industry group said in a statement. "Flame retardants have been proven to be a critical component of fire safety and can help save lives."
"This petition unfortunately lumps together a broad range of substances with different properties and uses without any consideration of their individual safety or benefits," added Bryan Goodman, a spokesman with the American Chemistry Council, in an email.
Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, shared a similar concern about the petition's broad reach. "I'm not a big fan of flame retardants being used," she said. "But I think a blanket banning of anything with a halogen on it may not be the best approach."
Birnbaum suggested there might be some circumstances in which certain organohalogen chemicals may still prove critical for fire safety. "And I'm not convinced that some of the non-halogenated flame retardants are any better," she said.
While organohalogens still make up the majority of flame retardants in consumer products, another class -- phosphates -- is coming into use. Blum noted that these chemicals, too, are "looking worrisome." Yet she added that there was not yet enough evidence regarding their toxicity to add them to the petition.
Health experts and advocates seem to agree that before looking for a safer alternative, manufacturers should determine if a substitute is even necessary. Can a couch -- or mattress or children's toy -- be constructed differently so that chemical additives aren't needed in the first place? It turns out that flame retardants added to furniture may not actually slow fires.
Spurred in part by mounting evidence of health problems associated with flame retardant additives, as well as a Chicago Tribune investigation that found the additives may offer no meaningful fire protection, the state of California last year revised its Technical Bulletin 117 to remove a decades-old requirement that flame retardants be included in the stuffing of upholstered furniture. The state rule, which became the de facto standard for the rest of the nation, meant use of the chemicals flourished for years. However, as Blum noted, California's updated standard still does not forbid flame retardants outright.
How a CPSC ban on organohalogens would affect the furniture industry, one of the major users of flame retardants, is not yet clear. "We have just become aware of this petition and have not had the opportunity to fully investigate its potential impact on our industry," said Andy Counts, CEO of the American Home Furnishings Association, which has previously opposed measures that could increase chemical risks to its customers or employees.
Organohalogen flame retardants are the first of six entire classes of chemicals that Blum and her colleagues intend to address. This broader approach, they argue, could prove a more effective way to increase the chemical safety of household products.
Under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, the EPA has banned just five chemicals and has required testing for only about 200 of the more than 80,000 permitted for use in the United States. A bipartisan bill unveiled in Congress earlier this month shows some promise of reforming the outdated law. Yet the legislation has also set off heated debate. Some public health advocates warn, for example, that a federal law could stymie swifter chemical safety efforts by states, several of which have already proposed bans on flame retardants.
"Bans take a really long time. TSCA reform is taking a really long time," said Blum. "And then there are so many chemicals and so much testing that needs to be done. So let's find a way to act on what we know, rather than wait for such a long time for a process that may or may not turn out to be effective."
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