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Groups Urge Ban on Flame Retardants

Monday, April 6, 2015

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From firefighters to pediatricians to scientists, a diverse coalition of organizations is calling for a federal ban on consumer products that contain flame retardants with organohalogens.

The group makes its case in a 63-page rulemaking petition submitted Tuesday (March 31) to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.


Flame-retardant chemicals have been touted as important tools to meet fire safety regulations. However, health groups warn these chemicals are posing health risks, especially to children and firefighters.

The petition—signed by the Green Science Policy Institute, the American Academy of Pediatrics, International Association of Fire Fighters, Worksafe and seven other organizations and scientists—specifically targets children’s products, furniture, mattresses and the casings around electronics.

However, organohalogens are also widely used as flame retardants in building materials, including insulation.  

Chemical manufacturers defend the retardants as “a critical component of fire safety.”

Health Hazards

Organohalogen flame retardants have been linked to cancer, infertility, reduced IQ, learning deficits and hormone disruptions. However, they are still being used in high levels in consumer products, the petitioners say.

The chemicals “migrate continuously” out of these products into the air and dust. Nearly 100 percent of U.S. residents have these compounds in their bodies, the petitioners argue, citing multiple studies.

Moreover, the International Association of Fire Fighters has determined a link between the fumes created when these treated products burn and disproportionately high levels of cancer among firefighters, the petitioners say.

'Toxic Whack-a-Mole’

While some of these flame retardants have been banned or voluntarily phased out by manufacturers, the substitutions have also proved harmful to human health, the petitioners argue.

Thus, the groups see a problematic cycle.

“For decades, regulators have been playing a dangerous game of toxic whack-a-mole: banning a harmful chemical only to have it replaced with a chemical cousin that turns out just as problematic,” said Dr. Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, a signatory on the petition.

Ranjithsiji / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The petitioners target four kinds of consumer products: children’s products, furniture, mattresses and the casings around electronics. But the same chemicals are widely used in building materials.

The petitioners aim to “set a legal and policy precedent for regulating the most harmful classes of chemicals.”

While chemical regulation most often falls under the purview of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has the authority under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act to ban a class of chemicals that affects consumer products, the groups say.

Workers in the Dark

“This petition to the CPSC is of critical importance to people who are disproportionately exposed to flame retardants: the large groups of working people who are exposed both on the job as well as when in their homes,” said Gail Bateson, executive director of Worksafe.

Worksafe is a California-based organization dedicated to eliminating all types of workplace hazards.

“The impact on firefighters has received a lot of well-deserved attention based on their exposure to toxic fumes released by these products when they burn," Bateson said.

“But workers involved in manufacturing or building homes using products containing flame retardants are largely being kept in the dark about their exposures. It’s time to move to safer, less toxic ways to protect all of us from fires.”

Too Ambitious?

The request to ban all organohalogens may be too ambitious, according to U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Director Linda Birnbaum.

Linda Birnbaum

Banning an entire class of chemicals could be problematic, says U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Director Linda Birnbaum.

“Just banning things because they have a halogen atom in them could be problematic,” the toxicologist told Environmental Health News.

“There may be sub-classes that we could look at, or certain chemical structures that are known to be problematic, but I can’t say that banning an entire class is the way to go.”

A CPSC spokesman told The Huffington Post that the commission had received the petition and was determining whether the document met its regulations.

Chemical and Fire Safety

In a statement responding to the petition, the American Chemistry Council said the chemicals were subject to review by the EPA and other global regulatory bodies.

“It’s unfortunate that these petitioners are presenting families with the false choice between chemical safety and fire safety, when we can have both,” said the ACC’s North American Flame Retardant Alliance.

“Families should know that flame retardants can help provide strong protection against potentially devastating situations.”


Tagged categories: Coating chemistry; Coatings manufacturers; Construction chemicals; Fire; Flame-retardant coatings; Health and safety

Comment from Ujjval Vyas, (4/6/2015, 11:53 AM)

I hope that your readers will not imagine that this purely advocacy-driven document by anti-chemical groups seeking to demonize organohalogens constitutes anything even close to objective information. The real issue is that they are attempting to involve a new federal agency in their attempts to ban various types of chemicals. The use of the term toxic is highly deceptive and the underlying assumptions of the precautionary principle as adequate to this type of wide-eyed and misguided hatred of chemicals doesn't help anyone who is trying to be serious about the issues. The real problem is how to balance the costs, benefits, risks, and values in society. I encourage all your readers and industry partners to think very carefully how to change the conversation surrounding chemicals away from the immature view exemplified by this report. It seems to me that the cowering attitude often taken by industry orgs and industry players when faced with the public relations/lobbying/advocacy activity of such parties are not only counterproductive for the industry itself but for society as a whole.

Comment from peter gibson, (4/6/2015, 6:34 PM)

Your statements are correct. Problem is the public at large is dumb,and focus on the scare tactics. Ind orgs cower because they dont want to be in the headlines for anti Green.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (4/8/2015, 8:17 AM)

The easiest way to handle these concerns is to ban organohalogen fire retardants until there is an acceptable risk assessment which has been performed for that particular chemical rather than just using them until problems arise, then switching to a slightly different version until problems arise, then switching to a slightly different version until problems arise (ad nauseum). I'm perfectly happy to allow organohalogens once the producer has performed appropriate health/exposure studies.

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