To most consumers, a label indicating that a piece of furniture, electronic device or clothing is “flame resistant” would be comforting. After all, no one would want to purchase an item that could potentially be extremely flammable – especially so in the case of clothing. Presumably, when manufacturers choose to add flame retardant chemicals to their products, they do so with our best interests in mind. Sounds like a pretty good deal – that is, until you consider the potential ramifications that exposure to these chemicals can have on human health.
For years, scientists and health professionals have debated the safety of using polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) in children’s clothing to lower flammability as exposure to this particular compound has been linked to developmental disorders, neurological conditions and cancer. Despite major evidence that would indicate the potential harmful effects of flame retardant chemicals, these compounds have continued as a staple in many common items due to the single, minor benefit they offer.
It’s like a dangerous game of Russian Roulette: on one side you’re protected in the chance of a fire, but on the other you’re exposing yourself to known carcinogens and toxic chemicals that can lead to the development of cancer, as well as reproductive and neurological disorders. Not exactly the win-win situation you might hope for.
More Harm Than Help
Most common flame retardant chemicals fall under the organohalogen chemical group. According to EarthJustice: “This entire class of chemicals has been associated with serious human health problems, including cancer, reduced sperm count, increased time to pregnancy, decreased IQ in children, impaired memory, learning deficits, hyperactivity, hormone disruption and lowered immunity.”
Despite these serious concerns for human health, these chemicals can be found in high levels in most consumer products. What is possibly most concerning about these chemicals is the fact that they can easily migrate from products like couches, mattresses, clothing, computers, and cell phones into air and dust particles – think of them as toxic “hitchhikers” if you will. Meaning, even if you consciously avoid these chemicals, you can still be exposed to them.
In fact, it is estimated that 97 percent of U.S. residents have measurable quantities of toxic organohalogens in their blood stream. As if that weren’t bad enough, these chemicals are bioaccumulative, or have the ability to become part of fat and muscle tissues, effectively making them able to slowly poison people over extended periods of time. (Children are especially susceptible to these toxins as their bodies metabolize them at a much faster rate.)But hey, if you happen to fall asleep with a cigarette in your hand – you’re good!
…Well, except for the fact that being exposed to the fumes generated when these chemicals are burned actually increases their toxicity; the International Association of Fire Fighters has determined that firefighters exposed to organohalogen fumes have disproportionately high levels of cancer among firefighters.
Taking Action to Protect Our Health
No law or regulation in the U.S. exists to prohibit the use of these chemicals in consumer products, regardless of the mounting evidence that they are extremely dangerous. Technically, organohalogens are regulated under the Toxin Substances Control Act of 1976, however, this piece of legislation only requires chemical manufacturers to assess the safety of new chemicals; any chemical that was in production before 1976 can remain in circulation without regulation. So … the logic here is that if a chemical’s been poisoning humans for 40 plus years, it’s free to continue to do so – great!
Thankfully, a coalition of health professionals, scientists, environmentalists, and concerned citizens have banded together to launch a petition that would effectively ban the use of organohalogens from four categories of consumer products: children’s products, furniture, mattresses, and casings around electronics.
Working in collaboration with EarthJustice, 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, Dr. Philip J. Landrigan and the Green Science Policy Institute, have filed a petition with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to make this ban a reality.
It seems a bit outrageous that such a lengthy list of professionals would have to file a petition to have these chemicals banned from common consumer products when the negative health impacts have been known for decades. In the past, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has required companies to label their products that contain flame retardants – in an effort to “warn” consumers – but this system is wildly ineffective at deterring consumers from purchasing products.
The only way to create real change for the benefit of human health is to ban this class of chemicals outright. Not only will this encourage manufacturers to find non-toxic alternatives to carcinogenic chemicals, but it will also protect future generations from suffering the levels of exposure that are already apparent in 97 percent of the current U.S. population.
To learn more about the petition to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, click here. To read testimony from scientists, health professionals and other industry leaders on the ill-health effects of organohalogens, click here.
Image source: Imgur