Groups petition federal agency to ban products containing certain flame-retardants.

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A diverse group of organizations petitions the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban products containing a class of flame-retardants linked to cancer, hormone disruption and reproductive problems.

March 31, 2015

By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News

A group of firefighters, scientists, and health and consumer advocates are petitioning federal authorities to ban children’s products, furniture, mattresses and electronic casings if they contain a class of flame-retardants.

The petition, announced today and put together by the Green Science Policy Institute and Earthjustice, calls on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban these products if they contain organohalogens flame-retardants, a class of chemicals that have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and reproductive, developmental and immune system problems, according to the petitioners.

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By targeting an entire class of compounds, rather than a single chemical, the petition is a new approach to tackling the seemingly intractable problem of keeping up with harmful chemicals in our environment, said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.

There are more than 80,000 chemicals registered in the United States, most of which haven’t been fully studied for potential health impacts. The National Toxicology Program estimates 2,000 new chemicals are introduced every year. 

Some flame-retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have been largely banned or voluntarily phased out by manufacturers because they’re persistent in the environment and toxic. But the replacements often have similar properties to the banned compounds, something Blum referred to as “toxic whack-a-mole.”

“Moving from a harmful substance to its chemical cousin,” she said.

Organohalogen flame-retardants are added to products such as mattresses, baby strollers, changing pads, the casings of computers and TVs, and building insulation to keep them from catching fire.

But because some of these compounds do not stay in products – but can migrate into dust - almost all people have these compounds in their bodies. Some of the highest levels of flame-retardants are found in children, mostly because of their hand-to-mouth habits.

U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences director Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist who specializes in the health effects of environmental contaminants, said she understands the petition but thinks it may be a bit too ambitious.

“Just banning things because they have a halogen atom in them could be problematic,” Birnbaum said. “There may be sub-classes that we could look at, or certain chemical structures that are known to be problematic, but I can’t say that banning an entire class is the way to go.”

Numerous animal studies have shown the compounds to impact development and reproduction and disrupt the endocrine system.

Several organohalogen flame-retardants, or their by-products, are banned by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, a global treaty of 150 countries. The first 12 compounds the Convention banned were organohalogen pesticides, such as DDT. "Just banning things because they have a halogen atom in them could be problematic." -Linda Birnbaum, US NIEHS

The Consumer Product Safety Commission doesn’t have a set timeline to deal with the petition, said Eve Gartner, a staff attorney at EarthJustice, who is working on this case.

If it meets criteria as a legit petition, it could possibly be open to public comment, as some petitions in the past have, Gartner said. Most petitions sent to the Commission have not dealt with chemicals, she said.

“Clearly they [the Commision] have authority over toxic chemicals,” Gartner said, referring to the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. “They just haven’t used it much.”

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A major issue with flame-retardants is whether they’re effective and necessary in products. The chemicals became widely used in the 1970s after a California law required furniture to be more resistant to flames.

However, an investigation three years ago by the Chicago Tribune found that since the California law, deceptive campaigns have promoted flame-retardant use and the chemicals don’t always work as promised. In 2013, California relaxed the 1970s law and now requires furniture made with flame-retardants to be labeled as such.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all flame-retardants aren’t needed, Birnbaum said.

“Maybe we don’t need them in all of the mattresses, furniture, but I think we might need them in electronics,” she said. “Have electronics changed enough that they are no longer subject to sparking?”

The petition has a diverse backing and includes the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Hispanic Medical Association, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Learning Disabilities Association of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Worksafe and Dr. Philip J. Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

The children’s health organizations cited research that showed women with higher levels of flame retardants in their blood had babies with lower birth weights and, years later, the children had lower IQs.

Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said in a statement that flame-retardants create “a serious health risk for fire fighters."

A 2013 study found elevated levels of flame-retardants and harmful byproducts in twelve San Francisco firefighters’ blood. Researchers suspect such exposure might be behind the elevated rates of cancer that firefighters suffer from, as reported by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health last year

While the petition seeks to address new products containing these chemicals, there’s also the “tens of millions of toxic couches and other products” that already contain them, Blum said.

“This petition and process can start helping people change about how they think about chemicals,” she said. “One way we’ll get ahead is to think about classes when we’re talking about harmful compounds in everyday products.”


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For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

 

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