EPA investigating health risks from flame-retardant products

“EPA is committed to more fully understanding the potential risks of flame retardant chemicals, taking action if warranted, and identifying safer substitutes when possible,” said James J. Jones, the acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, noting the limits placed upon the agency by Congress.

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Last year, the Chicago Tribune penned an investigative series that examined efforts of the tobacco and chemical industry to promote the flame-retardant products. At the center of the controversy is a 1976 law called the Toxic Substances Control Act, which does not require companies to prove chemical products are safe before marketing them. The act also limits EPA’s ability to regulate the substances. 

“Americans are often exposed to flame retardant chemicals in their daily lives; flame retardants are widely used in products such as household furniture, textiles, and electronic equipment,” the EPA said in a statement. “Some flame retardant chemicals can persist in the environment” and, when inhaled from dust left in the air, “cause neurological developmental effects in animals.”

Last month, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and 23 other Democratic senators wrote to the agency and asked officials to undertake a larger study of the chemicals.

“Flame retardants are mixed into a number of household products in order to raise the temperature at which they begin to burn, purportedly making the products more flame resistant,” the senators wrote. “Instead, a growing body of scientific research has found that flame retardant chemicals are toxic, persist in our environment, and accumulate in our bodies. Specifically, the EPA and other authoritative scientific bodies have found that some of these chemicals are linked to cancer as well as serious neurological and reproductive diseases.” 

Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, EPA has only been able to require testing for about “200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals currently registered in the United States, and has been able to ban only five dangerous substances,” according to Lautenberg’s office.

The New Jersey lawmaker applauded EPA’s announcement, announcing that he would reintroduce a bill he authored in the last session of Congress to reform the decade’s old standard.

Though it gained 29 co-sponsors and passed through the Committee on Environment and Public Works, it did not make a floor vote, where it would have likely met resistance from Republicans.

Andy Igrejas, the executive director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said the studies are only the beginning.

“These assessments can help shed new light on these chemicals and inform the market place about which ones to avoid,” he said. “Unfortunately, until there is reform of [the Toxic Substances Control Act], they will be severely limited in what they can actually do with the results of their assessments.”