Public Health & Recreation

How Did Flame Retardants Become a Hot Chemical?


PROVIDENCE — Chemical manufacturers profit on the fear of fire by concocting chemical compounds that are flame-resistant. They lobby industry groups and fire marshals, who don’t want to be seen as soft on fire prevention, to advocate for the use of these flame retardants, most of which are added to computer plastics, upholstered furniture and cushions before their impacts are properly studied.

These companies — which are beholden to shareholders, not necessarily the public good — their lobbyists and special interest groups comfort citizens by telling them that flame-retardant mattresses and pillows allow for a better night’s sleep. However, they routinely fail to mention that flame-retardant compounds have been found in mothers’ breast milk, house dust and human blood.

Spokesmen from industry-funded organizations discredit studies that have linked some flame retardants to cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems and child autism by claiming the results are exaggerated and/or not scientifically valid.

Flame retardants go by a variety of scientific names, most notably polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. Some are legal for use in all consumer products. Others are known to be toxic and banned from certain products, such as children’s pajamas, but still are poured into things as varied as electronics, clothing, upholstery and commercial textiles, according to the Massachusetts-based Silent Spring Institute.

Brown University professor of sociology Phil Brown has spent nearly a decade monitoring the use of flame retardants. Last year, Brown and the Silent Spring Institute received a three-year grant for $432,676 to study, among other things, the history of flame-retardant use.

Brown finds the topic both interesting and disturbing. “We ban one type of PBDE and then quickly move onto replacement chemicals that we don’t know much about and what they could do to the environment,” he said.

There are 175 types of flame retardants, according to Alissa Cordner, a Brown University graduate student who is working with Phil Brown on the study. And the chemical industry, they noted, isn’t required to release the makeup of its manmade products.

“We want to find out how and why flame retardants became such a popular chemical,” Cordner said.

In the 1970s, when cancer-causing PCBs, another family of manmade organic chemicals, were on their way to being banned, flame retardants began being added to a variety of consumer products — from electronics and carpets to plastics and polyurethane foam. PBDEs are persistent pollutants that are ever-present in the environment and accumulate in the fat of wildlife, pets and humans.

But even as one PBDE combination is banned — the main flame retardant in children’s pajamas, tris (2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate, for example, was banned in the late ’70s because it is a carcinogen — others are introduced without knowing the impact on human health. The research Brown and Cordner are conducting aims at finding out how scientific data about flame retardants is being used and how this information could be utilized to create public policy.

Multinational chemical manufacturers, especially the three biggest flame-retardant producers — the Albemarle Corp., the Chemtura Corp. and Israel Chemicals Ltd. — will spend a lot of capital to ensure their flame retardants are placed in all types of consumer goods.

Just last year, a state senator in California introduced a bill that would have exempted certain children’s furniture from provisions of California’s fire code. The new rules would have given manufacturers the option of forgoing toxic flame retardants, thus giving consumers the opportunity to buy chemical-free kids’ furniture.

California’s fire-safety standards are among the strictest in the country. All furniture manufactured in the Golden State must be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without igniting.

While there are other methods that meet California’s strict standards, such as the use of less-toxic chemicals, the cheapest way for manufacturers to comply with these regulations is to soak upholstered furniture with noxious flame retardants.

Relentless lobbying efforts by chemical companies to protect their multibillion-dollar industry eventually extinguished the aforementioned bill.

There’s no need to put flame retardants into products that are not fire risks, Brown said. “Most fires don’t start in electronics,” he noted.

Regrettably, it has become common practice to introduce understudied chemicals into the environment without conducting adequate toxicological testing. This system works well for the chemical industry’s profit margins, but frequently ends up costing the public much more.

For proof, go back three decades to the asbestos crisis of the 1980s. Asbestos was a common household chemical long suspected of toxicity, and in 1989, after numerous health and legal battles, the Environmental Protection Agency finally got around to banning it. The federal government — i.e. taxpayers — is still spending billions in liability lawsuits affecting more than 600,000 people.

In fact, 20 percent of the 84,000 chemicals used commercially in the United States are kept secret under federal law, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group. Heck, under current U.S. law, corporations, including chemical manufacturers, are not required to make industry-conducted studies public.

Also, getting chemicals banned once they hit the market is monumental task. And even when it happens, chemical manufacturers just slightly alter the banned compound. “They just move to the next chemical,” Cordner said. “Science is constantly catching up.”

In the United States, chemicals are mass-produced and distributed until they are found to be dangerous. For example, the production of certain PBDEs was stopped in 2004, but the chemicals remain in older products, and since these compounds are not chemically bound, they can leach out of pre-2004 computers, upholstered furniture and carpet padding.

By comparison, Europe requires that chemicals must be proven safe before they are sold.

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