Momentum Builds for Legislation to Curb Use of Toxic Flame Retardants

Lawmakers are calling for legislation to protect children from toxic flame retardant chemicals embedded in a host of everyday consumer products. The substances have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and other serious illnesses. Since these chemicals are widely used in furniture, clothes, and carpets, practically every home in the country could be affected.

Dangers of Flame Retardants

For over forty years, a class of synthetic chemicals, called flame retardants, has permeated the lives of all Americans. Flame retardants are used in everything from baby blankets and strollers, children’s clothes, electronics, furniture, carpets, vehicle and airplane parts, and many other products. While these chemicals are intended to reduce the flammability of products, they also slowly leak out into the air, dust, and water and eventually enter our food and bodies.

Studies have increasingly shown that these chemicals are harmful and can cause cancer, developmental problems, neurological deficits, and impaired fertility. A Duke University study, released just last week, linked early exposure to one flame retardant, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), to low birth weight, lower IQs, and impaired motor and behavioral development. The study also revealed that toddlers from lower-income minority families had levels of PBDEs in their bodies nearly twice that of white toddlers. This may be because lower-income families often must rely on less expensive clothing and products, which are usually made of synthetic materials and may have higher treatments of flame retardants. An earlier study by the University of California-Berkeley found that high exposure to flame retardants in pregnant women can alter brain development in the fetus.

Children are particularly vulnerable to exposure because of the higher level of contact they have with furniture, toys, and carpet. "A high proportion of infants are in physical contact with products treated with these chemicals almost 24 hours a day. Some of these chemicals are either known or suspected carcinogens," said Heather Stapleton, assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University.

Secrets and Misinformation

Despite the scientific findings about the dangers of flame retardants, limited information about their risks is available to the public. "It’s hard to determine what flame-retardant chemicals are in most products due to confidential business information that protects the companies’ proprietary rights," Stapleton said. Environmental and health groups have long complained about chemical companies using trade secrets claims to hide information on the toxicity and health effects of chemicals. These trade secrets/confidential business information claims prevent government agencies and the public from being able to evaluate the risks associated with various chemicals and from taking action to protect public health and the environment.

A recent investigation on flame retardants found that companies went well beyond hiding behind trade secrets claims and actively produced misinformation and manipulated existing science data. In its four-part series, Playing with Fire, the Chicago Tribune found that both the tobacco and chemical industries waged a "decades-long campaign of deception" to mislead the public, state legislators, and regulatory agencies about the toxicity of flame retardants.

Unknown to many, the use of flame retardants in furniture can be traced back to the tobacco industry. Faced with growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes (in response to the growing number of house fires caused by smoldering cigarettes), the tobacco industry promoted flame retardant furniture instead. Cigarette lobbyists formed the National Association of State Fire Marshals, which includes the top fire marshal in each state, to further the tobacco industry’s campaign.

Chemical companies that produced flame retardants also began their own promotion efforts, some of which included very deceptive practices. The top three flame retardant manufacturing companies created a phony citizen’s group in 2007, called Citizens for Fire Safety, to push for laws requiring flame retardants in furniture. The group paid a prominent burn doctor, David Heimbach, to testify about children burned to death lying on cushioning which did not contain flame retardants. The Chicago Tribune reported that Heimbach’s stories were false and that the babies he described did not exist. Heimbach responded that his testimony was meant to be anecdotal and that he "wasn’t under oath."

The chemical industry also manipulated scientific findings to further their campaign for flame retardants and downplay their health risks. For instance, the lead scientist of a government study comparing fire retardant with non-fire retardant products argued that industry’s use of the study was "improper and untruthful." Another study, financed by the chemical industry more than 15 years ago, concluded that flame retardants prevent deadly fires. However, that study is only available in Swedish and relied on weak evidence from only eight electrical fires caused by televisions. The newspaper concluded that the industry has disseminated "misleading research findings so frequently that they essentially have been adopted as fact."

Chemical Safety Reform Needed

The government has not taken action to regulate or provide information on toxic flame retardant chemicals because the EPA does not have sufficient authority to test and regulate the more than 80,000 chemicals in use. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), the nation’s primary and outdated chemical safety law, the EPA is required to prove that a chemical poses a health risk; unlike procedures at the Food and Drug Administration, chemical companies do not have to prove the safety of their chemicals before they are put into commercial use. In fact, under TSCA, companies only have to submit safety data "if they have it." However, there is no legal obligation for chemical companies to research the potential health risks from their products before selling them for use. This creates a perverse incentive to avoid such health research, since any problems discovered could be used by the government to limit use and thereby reduce profits.

In 2010, the EPA attempted to use its authority under TSCA to the fullest extent possible by creating a "chemicals of concern" list to restrict the use of certain chemicals and alert the public to their possible dangers. PBDEs are believed to be among the chemicals the EPA added to the list. However, the rule that created this list has been under review at the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for the past two years (other important public health and safety rules have also been delayed at OIRA). In the meantime, countless Americans are being exposed to potentially toxic chemicals.

Policymakers have proposed legislative remedies to strengthen EPA’s authority in this area, but the measures have not yet been enacted. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S. 847) to increase chemical safety, improve consumer access to information on chemical hazards in products, and protect vulnerable populations, such as low-income communities, children, and pregnant woman. The bill would require safety substantiation of chemicals before they are placed in consumer goods, such as baby cribs. So far the legislation, strongly opposed by the chemical industry, has failed to move in Congress.

Stroller Brigade and Lawmakers Call for New Safe Chemical Legislation

On May 22, families across the country marched in Washington, DC, to lobby for action on the Safe Chemicals Act. The family-oriented campaign, known as the Stroller Brigade, is organized by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of 280 public health, parent, environmental, and community organizations.

"It's shocking that toxic chemicals end up in everyday consumer products, and in our bodies, without anyone proving that they are safe," Lautenberg told the gathering on the steps of the Capitol. "The Stroller Brigade is carrying an important message to Congress that we're not going to stand by and let our kids continue to be exposed to chemicals that make them sick. Concerned moms are the best weapons we have in this fight."

"The disturbing truth is that flame retardants are only one example of the many toxic substances that have made their way into American homes as a result of self-serving chemical companies and the weak, ineffective federal law that has regulated chemical safety standards since 1976," Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) stated. Durbin urged Senate colleagues to revive the proposed Safe Chemicals Act and questioned the White House on the status of EPA’s proposed chemicals of concern rule.

Image in teaser by flickr user sunsurfr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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