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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