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A final look at flame-retardant materials

Flame-retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are used because they are inexpensive. They are manufactured in huge quantities and are put into furniture and electronic casings, but leach out into the environment and into human bodies. These chemicals have been shown to cause a multitude of toxic effects in human and other animals -- do safer alternatives exist?

A different chemical flame-retardant touted as a safe replacement by its manufacturer Chemtura is Firemaster 550. FM550 is a mixture of chemicals, most of which are trade secrets. Limited toxicological testing has been done on FM550 and it is difficult for non-industry researchers to do independent research. Not all scientists or laypeople are convinced FM550 is safe to use. Furthermore, Chemtura made donations to four California legislators in the year before those legislators changed their votes and vetoed bill AB706, which would have made flame-retardant laws in California stricter.

Another chemical alternative to PBDE flame-retardants is brominated or chlorinated tris, both of which were shown to be potent carcinogens. These chemicals migrate from children’s sleepwear into children’s bodies and were banned from sleepwear in 1977. However, they are still used as flame-retardants in furniture.

“Greener” flame-retardant alternatives exist, too, such as those espoused by proponents of AB706 -- boric salts as additives, for example, or the use of less-flammable materials. However, certain green flame-retardants are very toxic -- hexabromocyclododecane and 1-bromopropane, which are added to “green” building insulator polystyrene, have been shown to cause reproductive toxicity and exert toxic effects on the liver.

Chemicals such as flame-retardants, plastics, and precursors for medicines are produced in or imported into the U.S. at a staggering rate. In 2001, 42 billion pounds of chemicals entered or were manufactured in the United States every single day, 90 percent of which were made from petroleum. Michael P. Wilson of the California Policy Research Center points out in a report prepared for the California Senate Environmental Quality Committee [PDF] that 42 billion pounds of chemicals -- if converted into gallons of water -- would fill 623,000 8000-gallon gasoline tanker trucks. Those trucks, if placed end to end, would stretch 6000 miles -- from San Francisco, across the U.S. to Washington, D.C., and back -- every day. The amount of chemicals produced in or for the United States every year would, in 8,000-gallon trucks, circle the equator 86 times.

Such high production of chemicals necessitates a large labor force, so the production of chemicals supplies numerous jobs -- but at what risk? Not all chemicals are known to be safe. Most chemicals, including flame-retardants, are not tested extensively for toxicity. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 is the only national law that exists to regulate chemicals. However, it does not require a manufacturer to do toxicological testing or to make public any test results for new or existing chemicals.

There are currently 81,000 chemicals used in the U.S. with 2,000 new ones introduced each year. There are also 77,000 existing hazardous waste dumpsites, many of which are leaking, and the EPA estimates 600 new waste sites are being created each month [PDF]. Diseases such as cancer and diabetes are on the rise, which might be related to the abundance of untested, possibly toxic chemicals found in every day American life. Chemicals in America are innocent until proven guilty. This policy benefits chemical manufacturers but in no way protects people’s health. Chemical companies do not want to invest in toxicological testing when they do not have to, or to lose money by recalling their products. Instead, they invest in lobbying and in creating fear via marketing campaigns designed to make consumers think that they will burn if their entire life is not flame-retardant.

Many chemicals do in fact help us. The proper medication can help save a life; lightweight plastic products are versatile and convenient. But the answer as to whether chemical fire-retardants are worth the risk remains to be seen.

Concerned people can write congress and petition their legislators to change the laws regarding toxicity testing, flame-retardant use and information disclosure. Or, encourage chemical manufacturers to do more toxicity testing, allow research institutes to do research on propriety formulations, or develop new, safer technologies. To avoid toxic flame-retardants, purchase furniture from states other than California.

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Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By PedroDaGr8 on 11/8/2008 6:28:27 PM , Rating: 3
Unlike your last piece, this sounds like the typical NATURE IS GREAT and SYNTHETIC IS EVIL drivel. It is financially and time wise IMPOSSIBLE to test EVERY single chemical. Along with this, you get into issues of what is a safe level what is not, method of administration, etc.

I'm sorry but synthetic materials are no more or less safe than natural products. They just aren't. If you choose to believe otherwise be my guest.

RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By petschska on 11/8/2008 7:18:15 PM , Rating: 1
Yes. I'd venture to say this one is worse. I also got the same impression you did Pedro.

Here's a quote from TSCA:
"Any person who manufactures, [(includes imports)] processes or distributes in [U.S.] commerce a chemical substance or mixture, and who obtains information which reasonably supports the conclusion that such substance or mixture presents a substantial risk of injury to human health or the environment, shall immediately inform the [EPA] Administrator of such information unless such person has actual knowledge that the Administrator has been adequately informed of such information."

Companies are legally obligated to inform upon any substantial risk and I can assure that the flame retardant industry follows those rules. There seems to be a lot of undue focus on flame retardants. Pharmaceuticals are far worse because people in the FDA many times have connections to the pharma companies. These are chemicals you put into your body much more than flame retardants. There's a very you pat my back, I'll pat yours in that industry. At least flame retardant toxicity testing is completely third party.

RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By wideout on 11/9/2008 8:34:32 AM , Rating: 5
Financial Deceit - Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, etc

Manufacturing Deceit - Chinese Milk Scandal (Sanlu), Date Rape Toys (Polly Pocket, Aqua Beads), Lead Posioning (Thomas the Tank)

Both lists go on an on. I am all for free market economics. However, with out reliable checks for safety and compliance to those laws, you cannot reasonable expect companies to comply with laws that would have a drastic impact to their bottom line.

RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By dever on 11/10/2008 2:21:00 PM , Rating: 3
You're only mentioning one side of the equation. Everyone assumes that individuals running a company will force unsafe products on an unsuspecting public... but any profit made from these sales would be quickly eclipsed by the hordes of lawsuits and damages owed when releasing a truly harmful product. It would be pure folly for a business to release a harmful product knowingly or otherwise.

Government regulations and laws typically just interfere with this responsibility. As I mentioned in your previous article about flame retardants, the reason Tris became so widespread in children's pajamas (nearly 100%) was because of a federal mandate to do so when Tris was one of the only options available. A free market would have slowly introduced the chemical, and it wouldn't have gotten far before it's carcinegenic nature was discovered.

Consumer exposure to risk was INCREASED because of government's desire to PROTECT consumers. It seems like a paradox, but when you use the force of government, well-intentioned ideas become destructive cancers.

RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By nomagic on 11/8/2008 7:46:11 PM , Rating: 5
I completely agree with you on the notion that most synthetic materials are as poisonous/safe as natural ones.

However, thousands of new synthetic compounds are introduced to the market every year. Many of these compounds are absorbed into human body like drugs. Yet, these compounds are not nearly as strictly regulated as drugs.

One day, when something goes terribly wrong (and it will), who is going to be responsible for it?

RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By JonnyDough on 11/9/08, Rating: 0
RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By TSS on 11/9/2008 12:06:50 PM , Rating: 2
where all dying of cancer because that's alot cheaper then living 140 years and retiring around 65.

this is all in the name of money. from your link: it is used in food as a preservative. in short, it keeps food fresh longer. food that's fresh longer is worth more, sells for more while production of new food can be lower since the old ones are still edible, thus, it's alot cheaper.

it's funny though how far humans go to get more money. just to quote 2 sentances from your link:

EDTA has been found to be both cytotoxic and weakly genotoxic in laboratory animals. Oral exposures have been noted to cause reproductive and developmental effects.

Approved by the FDA as a preservative in packaged foods, vitamins, and baby food.

on the other hand though. if nobody ever died, it would get awfully crowded.

RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By JonnyDough on 11/9/08, Rating: 0
RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By Ratinator on 11/10/2008 10:30:16 AM , Rating: 2
Why not compare apples to apples when doing these tests. Absorbed vs. Injected is vastly different. To make it a more realistic test they should have shampooed the rats, not injected them. This probably led to a much much higher concentration entering the body at a given time then you would ever get from the soap.

Drink too much water at any given time and you will die too. Should we ban water as well?

By JonnyDough on 11/11/2008 3:51:21 PM , Rating: 2
The reason they have to inject is to see what the chemical does to the body. Detrimental changes happen over time, the only way to get any results is to inject. Do you honestly think that a lab rat with a 3 year life span is going to tell you if 70 years of exposure to EDTA is going to give you cancer? Come on man, think.

By porkpie on 11/9/2008 3:13:35 PM , Rating: 2
Why do you think we're all dying of cancer?
Wow, what a fantasy. Cancer rates have gone up because we're all living a lot longer, mostly because we're eliminated other causes of death. Live long enough, you'll eventually catch cancer, that's how the body works.

We've also gotten much better at DIAGNOSING cancer. 50 years ago, you could very easily die of cancer, and it would be chalked up to 'natural causes'. Millions of cases of cancer were never officially counted as such because of that.

Rates are also going up because WE LEAD VERY UNHEALTHY LIFESTYLES. Every year we eat more and exercise less. That increases your risks of many different types of cancer.

RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By PedroDaGr8 on 11/9/2008 7:51:03 PM , Rating: 2
Dude you are kidding me right? You did not just pull the EDTA is made from formaldehyde and cyanide right and then comment on the starting materials toxicity to humans bullshit. That is intellectually dishonest as hell. That is like saying table salt is made from hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide.
First off there is no relationship to toxicity of a starting material and the final product, unless the change is very minor. Second off, do you know what EDTA is and does? It is a metal chelator. It helps your soap suds up by chelating the metals the make it hard. Thirdly, it has been used for MANY MANY MANY years in chelation therapy for people suffering from hypermetal toxicity. Why? Because it works.

Oh yeah if you actually followed the links in the wikipedia article especially the article linked discussing toxicity. Lets get your quotes and be truthful about them OK?

From the abstract of Lanigan RS; Yamarik TA Int J Toxicol. 2002 , 21 Suppl 2, 95-142.

"The lowest dose reported to cause a toxic effect in animals was 750 mg/kg/day . These chelating agents are cytotoxic and weakly genotoxic, but not carcinogenic."

Yes for someone like me the concentration I would have to absorb would be around 75 GRAMS A DAY. GTFO.

By PedroDaGr8 on 11/9/2008 7:51:55 PM , Rating: 2

RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By MrPickins on 11/9/2008 12:15:27 PM , Rating: 3
But, we should ban all chemicals!

Especially that evil Dihydrogen Monoxide...

RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By JediJeb on 11/9/2008 3:36:27 PM , Rating: 3
Especially that one, it dissolves everything even metal, causes errosion of our hillsides, and will kill you if very much gets into your lungs.

RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By MamiyaOtaru on 11/9/2008 10:31:34 PM , Rating: 3
I hear it's a major component of acid rain

By will246181 on 11/10/2008 2:52:01 PM , Rating: 2
And a carrier of STD's!

RE: Chemicals are evil scare tactics
By ted61 on 11/10/2008 1:13:27 PM , Rating: 2
I am not as smart as you guys but when I worked in a steel mill, we used to get flame retardent clothes issued to us. The retardent chemicals would give us rashes and burned our skin when we would sweat a lot. We would wash the chemicals out as soon as we got new clothes to protect our skin from the protectants. The cotton or wool clothes protected us from molten steel splashes almost as well as the chemically treated materials.

For us, there was a 1-5% improvement with the chemicals. That improvement is not worth the chemical side effects to me.

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