Toxic flame retardants are known health hazard and should be banned

There may be no more primal instinct in humans than the fear of fire. It is hard-coded in our DNA. But what if an industry used that fear to sell something that not only doesn’t do much to protect people from fire, but is linked to a variety of serious health issues?

For decades, the chemical industry has done just that. Toxic flame retardants found in furniture, children’s products and other common household goods have been linked to cancer, neurological disorders, impaired fertility and developmental problems. But, the chemicals that infuse our furniture and household goods actually turn out to be ineffective at preventing the most common types of fires — those started by smoldering cigarettes. 

{mosads}How did we get to this point, where furniture and other household goods are laden with chemicals that don’t protect us from fire but are associated with serious long-term illness and injury?

A 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation concluded this situation results from “a decades-long campaign of deception” by two powerful industries trying to protect profits, even at the expense of public health: Big Tobacco and the chemical industry. Tobacco wanted to shift the focus from cigarettes as the cause of fire deaths and the chemical industry wanted to preserve a lucrative market.

In 1975, California passed a flammability standard that required the use of flame retardants in furniture. It was the only such regulation in the nation, but because furniture makers didn’t want to change the manufacturing process just for one state, it became a de facto national standard.

Even after the health impacts of the class of chemicals used in flame retardants became clear, along with their ineffectiveness in stopping real-world fires, the chemical industry lobbied to keep the standard in place. 

The chemicals migrate out of furniture, released into the air every time someone sits on a couch or a baby is laid down on a crib’s mattress. These chemicals are now found in the blood of 97 percent of Americans. That’s unacceptable. 

When I look at this issue, I think of my son, my nieces and nephews, the children in my community and communities across the nation who we must protect.  Studies have shown communities of color bear a higher burden of these chemicals than any other population; with black and Latino children most exposed. 

Not only that, but when household products containing these chemicals do catch on fire, they produce more smoke, soot, toxic gases and other carcinogens than untreated items. This puts firefighters and other first responders at greater risk.

In response to public outcry from the Tribune investigation, California revised its flammability standard in 2013 so that compliance no longer required the use of toxic chemicals. The following year, the Sacramento Superior Court upheld that new standard, after it was challenged by a major flame retardant corporation.

Earthjustice, a non-for-profit environmental law firm, defended the standard, representing the California Professional Firefighters, Center for Environmental Health, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

But the new California standard isn’t enough to protect the public. While chemical flame retardants are no longer needed to meet a flammability standard, nothing currently prohibits use of these toxic chemicals in consumer products, despite the links to serious health problems.

The chemical industry response to requests for safer products has been shameful. Each time evidence has suggested a particular flame retardant chemical causes health issues, the industry has phased out that particular chemical, but replaced with it with a structurally similar chemical that eventually also turns out to be harmful.

The best solution would be to ban the entire class of toxic chemicals, known as organohalogens.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has the authority to ban dangerous products under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. A broad coalition of health, firefighter, consumer and science groups filed a petition for rulemaking in March with the commission to ban the sale of four categories of consumer products — children’s products, furniture, mattresses and electronics casings — if they contain this dangerous class of chemicals.

The commission held a public hearing on Dec. 9 and your voice can still be heard during the public comment period ending January 19, 2016. Take action to ban household products containing toxic flame retardants, now.

Garcia, as the vice president of Litigation for Healthy Communities, charts Earthjustice’s course in groundbreaking and high-impact litigation to protect communities and families from the wide range of pollution issues that confront them on a daily basis. She was formerly senior adviser to the administrator for Environmental Justice at the U.S Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration. 

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