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EPA Turns up Heat on Flame Retardants

Monday, April 1, 2013

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Amid mounting concerns and evidence of their risks, 20 flame-retardant chemicals will undergo new assessments this year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA announced Thursday (March 28) that it would begin assessments on 23 commonly used chemicals—including 20 flame retardants—"in order to more fully understand any potential risks to people’s health and the environment."

The effort is part of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Work Plan, which identifies commonly used chemicals for risk assessment.

House fire

Evidence is emerging that some toxic flame retardants may bioaccumulate, jeopardizing human health, while doing little in some cases to prevent fires.

The EPA also said it had already identified about 50 substitutes for toxic flame retardants now in use.

Flame-Retardant Risks

“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, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

Flame retardants are widely used in consumer products and environments, including household furniture, foam insulation, textiles, electronic equipment, and plane interiors.

Some of these chemicals can persist in the environment, bioaccumulate in people and animals, and have been shown to cause neurological developmental effects in animals, EPA notes.

Scientists at the University of California and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently urged a review of the use of certain flame-retardant chemicals in foam insulation. Not only are the chemicals harmful, the researchers found, but they don't help prevent fires in buildings that have a fire-safe thermal barrier.

Greener Steps

California is currently weighing a ban on chemical flame retardants in furniture. Supporters at a public hearing on the proposal last week included a veteran firefighter who spoke about the danger of inhaling the toxic burning material.

Jim Doucette

Firefighter Jim Doucette spoke in favor of a ban on toxic flame retardants.

"We became firefighters knowing the dangers involved," said Sacramento firefighter Jim Doucette. "But none of us thought we would be exposed to something that has no purpose."

Several researchers have reported progress lately on creating non-toxic flame retardants. The work includes development of a clay-based flame-retardant coating at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and work on an environmentally friendly nanocoating at Texas A&M University

20 Assessments

EPA's evaluation will include full risk assessments for four flame-retardant chemicals: three on the TSCA Work Plan and one that was the subject of an Action Plan development under TSCA.

The agency will assess eight others by grouping those with similar characteristics together with chemicals targeted for full assessment. The goal is to obtain better information for chemicals that currently lack sufficient data for a full risk assessment, EPA said.

TexasA&M-flame retardant research
Texas A&M

Galina Laufer is part of a team of Texas A&M University researchers who are developing a flame-retardant coating based on chitosan and clay.

EPA said it would also study how eight of the chemicals "transform and move in the environment." Those eight were selected because they are "likely to persist in the environment, bioaccumulate in people, and/or have high exposure potential, but there are not adequate data to conduct full risk assessments," the agency said. 

Previous reviews of data on flame-retardant chemicals in commerce has turned up about 50 chemicals that are unlikely to pose a risk to human health, EPA said.

Submissions Invited

EPA said it would use "a wide range of publicly available data sources" in developing the draft risk assessments.

In addition, the agency is seeking other relevant information, such as unpublished studies and information on uses and potential exposures. This information should be submitted by May 30, 2013.

Jones called the planned assessments "a significant step forward on chemical safety" but said they did not address the "dire need" to reform the 37-year-old TSCA law, "in order to ensure that all Americans are protected from toxic chemicals in their environment.”


Tagged categories: Building codes; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Flame-retardant coatings; Green coatings; Laws and litigation; Regulations

Comment from Donald L Crusan, (4/1/2013, 10:26 AM)

Interesting article. Working in The very important energy independent future secor of Shale Gas & Oil, I found a few companies trying to sell "Flame Resistant" Clothing instead of Flame Retardent, which is an impossibility. I believe that the chemical processes used shoud be more accurately called Flame Delay. Respectfully, Don Crusan

Comment from Donald L Crusan, (4/1/2013, 10:32 AM)

Saving a life or at least life debiliating burns that can be stopped with FRCs is so much more important than banning them. Clay based will not last long and those amongst us who work in Refineries or Chemical Plants deserve FRC Cothing, even if we hate using the hot non breatable fabric.

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