While reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is swirling in controversy, a targeted effort begins today to reduce the use of an entire class of harmful chemicals in everyday products.

For decades, regulators have been playing a dangerous game of toxic whack-a-mole: banning a toxic chemical only to have it replaced with a chemical cousin that turns out to be just as problematic after years of use. But today, a diverse coalition including firefighters, doctors, advocates for children with learning disabilities, scientists, and worker and consumer groups petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to adopt regulations banning products containing any member of the class of organohalogen flame retardants in furniture, children’s products, mattresses and electronic enclosures. By seeking regulations addressing an entire class of intrinsically toxic chemicals in these uses, this petition aims to jump-start a more effective way to increase the chemical safety of household products.

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The class of flame retardants known as organohalogens (because they all contain either chlorine or bromine bonded to carbon) has been associated with cancer, reduced sperm count, increased time to pregnancy, decreased IQ in children, impaired memory, learning deficits, hyperactivity, hormone disruption, and lowered immunity. Due to their chemical structure, organohalogen flame retardants tend to be very persistent in the environment and in our bodies.

Because of the failures of TSCA, new members of this class continue to be used at high levels in consumer products despite a deficit of safety data, putting our health and that of future generations at risk. In 2012, a toxicologist at the University of California, Riverside – Dr. David Eastmond, found that all 86 organohalogen flame retardants available on the market at the time of the study were either toxic or of high concern for human health.

Children’s developing brains and reproductive organs are the most vulnerable to toxic flame retardants, and children are the ones most exposed. These chemicals migrate out of consumer products into dust, and children, who play on the floor and frequently put their hands in their mouths, inevitably touch and eat that dust. The cost of children’s exposure to these chemicals is enormous. A recent study estimated that the European Union (EU) spends over $200 billion a year on health problems, especially neurological disorders, related to endocrine disruptors such as flame retardants. In another recent paper, the authors report a 70-100 percent probability that polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a subgroup of organohalogen flame retardants commonly used for the past few decades in consumer products, are associated with 873,000 lost IQ points and 3290 cases of intellectual disability that cost society over $10 billion – in the EU alone.

Furthermore, organohalogen flame retardants, as currently used in furniture, toys, mattresses and electronic enclosures, offer no significant protection in realistic fire scenarios. Household products containing these flame retardants can still burn, and when they do, they tend to produce more smoke, soot, toxic gases and carcinogenic combustion products such as dioxins and furans. This puts building residents, firefighters and other first responders at greater risk of harm in the event of a fire.

The science that the class of organohalogen flame retardants is hazardous is compelling. The question is: will the CPSC protect consumers and first responders by prohibiting the sale of consumer products containing any member of this toxic chemical class?

Blum is visiting scholar in Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. Gartner, with Earthjustice, is the counsel on the petition.