Saturday, May 24, 2014

Flame Retardants Revisited

Flame retardants have been in the news recently. First there was news of a study finding flame retardant chemicals to be prevalent inside preschools and day care centers. Researchers examined the air and dust inside 40 child care centers, including those in urban, rural and agricultural areas. They tested for 18 types of flame retardants. including those in two different chemical categories. Both types were found in 100% of the collected dust samples. As I wrote in a previous post on flame retardants, the chemicals have been linked to a wide range of serious health effects.

The second piece of news comes from an article in the Chicago Tribune which reports that a doctor who testified in support of flame retardants has given up his medical license after being accused of fabricating stories of children burned in furniture fires. The story comes on the heels of an excellent series of reports written over the past several years which describe “a decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility.” 

The ongoing flame retardant saga is a microcosm of the problem of unregulated, harmful, and ubiquitous chemicals that fill our world. Here’s some of what we know.

  • Organizations with benign-sounding names are often not what they seem. In their quest to create a demand for their product, manufacturers of flame retardants used a well-known tactic and created a front group known as Citizens for Fire Safety. The Tribune reported that the group billed itself as a coalition of fire professionals, doctors, educators, and others, but that public records showed it to be a trade association with three members: the three largest manufacturers of flame retardants. The website Safer States lists the American Chemistry Council and the Toy Industry Association as other chemical industry front groups. An eye-opening article called Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Under Siege lists the trade organizations Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment and the Environmental Sensitivities Research Institute as well-funded and active groups fighting against the recognition of chemical illness.

  • Expert testimony may come from people who are more biased than they appear. The Tribune reports that when he testified in favor of flame retardants, David Heimbach presented himself as simply a concerned doctor, but that he was actually paid $240,000.

  • Experts who testify on behalf of chemical companies may not always tell the truth. Heimbach admitted that he told "an anecdotal story rather than anything which I would say was absolutely true under oath, because I wasn't under oath."

  • Written communication can be equally misleading and deceitful. Citizens for Fire Safety sent a letter to fire chiefs on behalf of “those of us in the fire safety profession.”  The letter’s author, however, was a public relations consultant.

  • Whether chemicals actually do what they are supposed to do is often a debatable issue. The Tribune notes that the chemical industry often uses a particular government study as proof that flame retardants save lives, but that the study’s lead author says that his findings have been distorted and used “in ways that are improper and untruthful.” He notes that household furniture generally contains enough fire retardants to threaten health but not enough to provide meaningful fire protection, a situation he calls "the worst of both possible worlds.”  Use of the antibacterial ingredient triclosan is similar. Another Chicago Tribune story (I’m becoming a fan of theirs) notes that advisory committees for the American Medical Association and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration state that there is no evidence that washing hands with soap containing triclosan or other anti-microbials provides any health advantages over washing with regular soap and water. The article quotes a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council who says, "Triclosan is what we call a stupid use of a chemical. It doesn't work, it's not safe and it is not being regulated."

  • Problematic chemicals that are removed from products may reappear later or be replaced by equally problematic ones. The flame retardant known as chlorinated tris has been linked to cancer and was voluntarily removed from children’s pajamas decades ago. However,  when problems with the flame retardant penta emerged and it was no longer available for use in furniture products, chlorinated tris came back to partially take its place. Another flame retardant taking penta’s place is Firemaster 550 and, unsurprisingly, it is linked to a growing number of health problems.

Around and around we go. We need meaningful chemical regulation and those of us who care about the issue need to make our voices heard.

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