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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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RE: Fear Mongering
By masher2 on 11/9/2008 4:58:00 PM , Rating: 4
> "So is modern better?"

Try living in the 17th century sometime and see for yourself. Do you realize that famlies of 10 or even 20 children were common (no modern birth control without chemicals) and that it was common for *half* those children to die before reaching adult hood? (no chemical-based antibiotics, disinfectants, sewage treatment, etc).

Do you realize that, without modern pesticides and fertizers (both chemical-based) that starvation was commonplace, even considered a natural state of mankind? Even though world population was a tiny fraction of what it is today?

Do you not consider that, before our modern lifestyle, nearly the entire population was forced to spend their entire lives toiling in the fields for 12-16 hours every day? No vacations, no sick leave-- if you couldn't bring in your crops, you starved, plain and simple.

Do you know that, in the 17th century, dying of a simple toothache wasn't uncommon? That, by age 40 or, at the very latest, 50, most people had lost all their natural teeth? Thanks to flourides (more chemicals), and advanced composite amalgams and sealants, a person today can live their entire life with actual teeth in their head? And even should they lose one, it can now be replaced, indistinguishably from the real thing?

The only sort of person who could possibly pose the question, "is modern better", is someone who knows nothing of the brutal, bitterly-short lives that faced the average human in past history.

> "Is it really that important for your house to be fire retardant?"

Ever seen a burn victim? It is, by far, the most painful form of injury known to man.

As a child in the 1960s, I saw not only my own house burn down once, but at least three or four others in the neighborhood do so as well. House fires were much more common then. A generation earlier, my mother's house burned down -- this time killing two of her brothers in the process.

I can't recall the last time I saw a house fire-- thanks to modern technology. And even when they due, families usually escape death...because the fires start and burn slower, thanks to fire-retardant materials.

Does every rain slicker in my closet need to be fire-resistant? Probably not...but to drum up blanket fears against fire retardants in general is highly irresponsible. Fire retarding chemicals have saved countless lives and serious burns.

RE: Fear Mongering
By JonnyDough on 11/9/2008 5:34:31 PM , Rating: 2
You do realize that starvation is still commonplace and considered a part of life in a large portion of the world, right? Get off your high horse masher, and get out more. The world is bigger than North America which exports a lot more food than it consumes. Try visiting Haiti, just off the coast of Florida a little ways. That school that collapsed recently, I'm honestly amazed it made the news. When I was in Haiti on a mission trip, on which I actually helped to BUILD a school (not that one) I saw a bus full of people that had been hit by a huge dump truck carrying rocks. Everyone died. It didn't make the news. I guess these are children, so it mattered more.

Nobody said that chemicals are all bad. What we're saying is that many have detrimental effects and long term studies have not been conducted. While you may say "oh this is good for humanity" it may in fact be harming us at the same time it's helping us. THIS is the issue. Nobody is denying the fact that having a nice green lawn is wonderful. We're saying, "what are these chemical fertilizers and pesticides this doing to our overall long-term health?"

Birth defects, small genetic mutations, cancers. These are the things we're also concerned with. Your perfect green lawn doesn't mean squat if your well is poisoned and takes 5 years away from enjoying time with your family. Of course, having a lawn to enjoy with your family is also great.

While parts of life may be better, there are also facets that are deteriorating at the same time, and these side effects are the things the government, shareholders, and chemical companies don't want you to know. There's a reason they write things in small print.

The only sort of person who could possibly pose the question, "is modern better", is someone who knows nothing of the brutal, bitterly-short lives that faced the average human in past history.

I take great insult to that, and your blatant hostility towards me without knowing me, and your remarks should have you banned from posting on DT. You have no business posting here with an authoritative presence with that kind of attitude towards others.

I'm well aware that burns hurt like all get out. I don't need your experiences from the 60's to tell me that. Stop belittling others on an open forum, and maybe people here will actually start respecting your views. For someone having grown up in the 60's you need to learn a bit more about respect and realize that starvation and famine are happening around the world every day.

RE: Fear Mongering
By masher2 on 11/9/2008 6:14:22 PM , Rating: 3
> "You do realize that starvation is still commonplace and considered a part of life in a large portion of the world"

No. Starvation is common only in small parts of Africa, the nation of North Korea and elsewhere where its due to either intentional acts by government, or a total breakdown of government itself. In short, it's a rare political problem, not due to any shortage of food itself.

> "Try visiting Haiti...I saw a bus full of people that had been hit by a huge dump truck "

I don't know what a traffic accident has to do with the discussion, but I've been to over three dozen developing nations. As I said above, outside of a few areas of political chaos, starvation does not exist. Prior to our widespread use of chemicals, starvation was commonplace-- in every nation in the world. Just 150 years ago, a quarter of the population of Ireland was lost...due to nothing more than a fungus that grew on potatoes. Thank god for modern fungicides, eh?

> "Nobody said that chemicals are all bad."

What you said was worse-- you questioned whether our modern lifestyle was superior to the brutal, primitive, agrarian lifestyle which came before it. There are still people living that lifestyle today-- in North Korea, parts of Africa, a few rural enclaves in Asia. Unsurprisingly, those are the places where starvation, malnutrition, pestilence, and disease are still rampant. Care to swap with any of them?

This article does *not* suggest a rational, thoughtful approach to the cost-benefit analysis of fire retardant materials. There's not one single fact about actual risks or impacts. Instead, we get emotional piffle such as "a toxic stew". It's yellow journalism, nothing more. And-- as an attack on the very real benefits of our modern lifestyle-- it's dangerous, to boot.

RE: Fear Mongering
By JonnyDough on 11/9/2008 11:28:57 PM , Rating: 2
"you questioned whether our modern lifestyle was superior to the brutal, primitive, agrarian lifestyle which came before it."

I did no such thing. I simply asked if the side effects were necessarily worth the chemicals used. You're putting words in my mouth, and then insulting me. I don't know how you got rated up, but it's obvious to me you have a little clique here. You're a lost cause, and obviously full of yourself. I'm done.

RE: Fear Mongering
By JonnyDough on 11/9/2008 11:32:04 PM , Rating: 2
Furthermore, just to prove to your little clique that you're a know it all spewing fud:

A direct quote:
"According to the World Health Organization, hunger is the gravest single threat to the world's public health"

Now please, grow up and quit trying to convince everyone the world is flat.

RE: Fear Mongering
By masher2 on 11/9/2008 11:49:56 PM , Rating: 2
> ""According to the World Health Organization, hunger is the gravest single threat to the world's public health""

An excellent example of why one should *not* quote Wikipedia. Click through the link that quote supposedly comes from, and you reach an article in the excellent publication, The Economist. The actual quote, however, is dramatically different:
Malnutrition [ not starvation ] is by far the biggest contributor to child mortality
Emphasis mine. Quite a different matter, eh?

Furthermore, even more interesting is the quote above it:
Unicef, the United Nations' children's agency, said this week that fewer than 10m children died before their fifth birthday in 2006— probably the lowest rate ever, and certainly the smallest number since records began in 1960, when twice as many under-fives died, out of a world population half today's level
In other words, a direct confirmation of my earlier remarks. Starvation has been declining rapidly and dramatically for more than 100 years.

A few centuries ago, the vast majority of the world population could expect malnutrition at some point in their lives, and starvation might expect to claim as many as a third of all people. Today, true starvation affects a vanishingly small percentage of the world population. Where it exists, it is a problem of politics, not any actual shortage of food.

RE: Fear Mongering
By PedroDaGr8 on 11/10/2008 3:16:11 PM , Rating: 2
masher, he seems to love to do that. For example he quote wikipedia without reading the reference. For example his comment about EDTA causing cancer because it is genotoxic and cytotoxic.

If he had bothered to read the article:
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 ."

On top of that, he never mentions the rather high amount of EDTA that would have to be consumed.

At that level no suprise it is cytotoxic. It is a metal chelator, which means it disrupts the ion gradient by chelating the ions. Cells use this gradient to create instant ATP in a simple cycle. Destroy this gradient, cells die.

RE: Fear Mongering
By JonnyDough on 11/9/2008 11:43:32 PM , Rating: 2
I know you're too full of yourself to bother to read that so let me reiterate. World hunger is NOT a political problem. World hunger is a CAPITALIST problem. Simply put, the money exists but cannot get to those who need because of EDUCATION, because of ECONOMY, and because rich jerks like you think that it is FOREIGN governments that are suppressing their own people. Does that happen? Yes. But it is NOT a government's duty to feed it's people. It's a government's duty to GOVERN the people. It is not the same thing. I'm not sure how you thought that suddenly the world can sustain all human life, it is simply not so. We are constantly reproducing beyond our means. Times have not suddenly changed over the last few hundred years, despite agricultural advances. Humans have always pushed the limits of numbers, it's why I we need to learn to limit our numbers through education (not through killing citizens, I never said that so please don't put words in my mouth there either like you've done before).

Please take your crazy conservative bullcrap to another site. People reading this might be considerably wealthier than a lot of the world, but they're not so complacent that we're all going to buy your fud just because you're a DT admin.

RE: Fear Mongering
By masher2 on 11/10/2008 12:02:43 AM , Rating: 2
> "We are constantly reproducing beyond our means"

Again, your beliefs don't correspond even remotely with the facts. World population is double what it was just 50 years ago, yet we're better fed, housed, clothed, and cared for medically than ever before in all history.

Take a look at the fertility rates of world nations. Most of Europe and the industrialized parts of Asia have very low births -- many aren't even high enough to sustain their own population, much less increase it.

Japan, Taiwan, Poland, Italy, Spain, Greece, Austria, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Australia, Thailand -- none of them are even having enough children to hold their current population, much less increase it.

Now, what nations have the highest birth rates? Mali, Niger, Somalia, Liberia, Afghanistan, Congo, Yemen -- rates 3, 4, even 5 times higher than the ones named earlier. All nations without a shred of capitalism, industry, or our modern society...for which we depend on the chemical industry utterly.

Source data at:

RE: Fear Mongering
By Reclaimer77 on 11/10/2008 10:28:21 PM , Rating: 2
World hunger is NOT a political problem. World hunger is a CAPITALIST problem.

Now I know you're an idiot.

Mash has you all figured out. He had you beat 5 posts ago, and the more you talk, the stupider we all are for having read it.

RE: Fear Mongering
By arazok on 11/10/2008 10:43:48 PM , Rating: 2

I have never seen a person so exceptionally wrong on so many points within such a short span of words.

You sir, need to get your head out of your ass.

RE: Fear Mongering
By Reclaimer77 on 11/10/2008 10:43:57 PM , Rating: 2
It's a government's duty to GOVERN the people.

More idiocy. Wrong, sir. Its the governments duty to provide a stable and secure infrastructure, secure borders, and the necessary social services ( fire, police etc etc ) needed to maintain the nation.

Duty to GOVERN the people ? I'm really surprised at how many idiots like you are on DT who seem to enjoy, nay, relish the idea of being governed and dominated and controlled by governments. Its no wonder Obama won in a landslide.

Please take your crazy conservative bullcrap to another site.

Likewise with this assinine socialist drivel.

RE: Fear Mongering
By unpocoloco on 11/13/2008 12:33:43 AM , Rating: 2
what you list are for a lucky "few", you among them,
In human terms,there have never been so much suffering EVER, how many are we today? 6.6 billions? i bet you that more people today live under the circumstances you described than all those who lived at one time in the 17th Century.

"So if you want to save the planet, feel free to drive your Hummer. Just avoid the drive thru line at McDonalds." -- Michael Asher

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