In 2015, Earthjustice and Consumer Federation of America, on behalf of a group of more than 20 firefighter, health, science and consumer groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Hispanic Medical Association and the International Association of Fire Fighters, asked the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs), which have been linked to reduced IQ, cancer, hormone disruption and reproductive system damage.1
The petition called for sales of four categories of consumer products — children's products, furniture, mattresses and electronic casings — to be prohibited if they contain the chemicals, and in a major victory for environmental and public health, in September 2017 CPSC voted to grant the petition to remove the toxic chemicals from the product categories mentioned.
Organohalogen Flame Retardants May Leave a Toxic Legacy Similar to PCBs
At a public hearing held prior to the vote, Genna Reed, science and policy analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, testified that OFRs should be urgently banned, comparing their use to the "earliest form of flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)," which are also organohalogens, along with DDT.
PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development, accumulate in the environment, leaving a lasting toxic legacy that, unfortunately, may be very similar to that left by flame retardants, even after they're banned. Reed testified:2
"Despite being banned in 1977, these chemicals [PCBs] are still found in dangerously high amounts all over industrial hotspots of the country, and continue to bioaccumulate in a range of species. The ban of PCBs happened decades ago and we are still managing the damaging impacts of the chemical's prevalence across the country.
The next generation of these chemicals, organohalogen flame retardants, are inside of our own homes in a range of products, thanks largely in part to the disinformation campaign sowed by special interests. The fact remains that the science does not support their continued use."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also evaluating OFRs, but it could be 10 years or more before they make a decision to ban or restrict their use.3 Part of what makes OFRs so toxic is their semivolatile nature, which allows them to migrate from consumer products into household dust, where every household member, from children to pets, is easily exposed.
In a U.S. study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), flame retardants were detected in every sample of household dust they tested, at concerning levels.
"The average level of brominated fire retardants measured in dust from nine homes was more than 4,600 parts per billion (ppb) … [while] a tenth sample contained more than 41,000 ppb of the chemicals — twice as high as the maximum level previously reported by any dust study worldwide," EWG reported.4 As Reed noted, OFRs easily meet the definition of "toxic" under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) because ample evidence shows they have the "capacity to cause personal illness."
"[E]xposure has been associated with a range of health impacts including reproductive impairment, neurological impacts, endocrine disruption, genotoxicity, cancer and immune disorders," she said at the public hearing, adding that, "perhaps most egregiously, biomonitoring data have revealed that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to and bear high levels of flame retardant chemicals, adding to the cumulative chemical burden that these communities are already experiencing."5
American Chemistry Council Deceived the Public About Flame Retardants' Toxicity, Effectiveness
In 2012, the Chicago Tribune published a revealing investigation, "Playing With Fire," showing how the chemical industry used tobacco-industry tactics to deceive Americans into accepting flame-retardant chemicals into their homes. In fact, Big Tobacco was involved in their pervasive spread because when the chemicals were developed in the 1970s, nearly half of Americans smoked and cigarettes were a common cause of fires.
As revealed in Toxic Hot Seat, a documentary based on the Tribune's investigation, rather than create self-extinguishing cigarettes to cut down on fire hazards, the tobacco industry created a front group called the National Association of State Fire Marshals, which pushed for federal standards for fire-retardant furniture.
It worked, and in 1975 California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) was passed, which required furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small flame without igniting — and it basically became a national standard.
The chemical industry then engaged in a deceitful battle to ensure the chemicals stayed front-and-center in Americans' homes, from establishing phony front groups to funding biased research to meet their agenda, despite evidence showing the chemicals limited effectiveness and health risks. Reed testified in September 2017:6
"The companies that manufacture OFRs have put significant time and money into distorting the scientific truth about these chemicals. As a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigative series noted, the chemical industry 'has twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry-funded reports as rigorous science.'
In one case, manufacturers of flame retardants repeatedly pointed to a decades-old government study, arguing the results showed a 15-fold increase in time to escape fires when flame retardants were present.
The lead author of the study, however, said industry officials 'grossly distorted' the results and that 'industry has used this study in ways that are improper and untruthful,' as the amount of flame retardant used in the tests was much greater than would be found in most consumer items.
The American Chemistry Council has further misrepresented the science behind flame retardants by creating an entire website to spread misleading ideas about flame retardants as safe and effective, even though research has consistently shown their limited effectiveness. In doing so, the American Chemistry Council and its member companies have promoted the prevalent use of OFRs at the expense of public health."
The chemical industry also engaged in a tactic known as "regrettable substitution," in which they removed certain flame retardants from products only to replace them with similar, less regulated chemicals that pose many of the same health risks.7
On a positive note, California revised TB117 so that an open flame test is no longer required. As of January 1, 2015, compliance with the updated TB117-2013 became mandatory, which requires upholstered furniture sold in the state to no longer smolder 45 minutes after a lit cigarette is placed on it. This requirement can be met without the use of flame-retardant chemicals (although the law does not ban their use).