A piece in the New York Times on Wednesday highlights the frightening ubiquity of flame retardants that have contaminated the daily lives of millions and millions of people despite scientific evidence showing their harmful and pervasive impacts.
“We’re exposed in every known environment,” Heather Stapleton, an associate professor of environmental sciences at Duke University, told the Times.
As the newspaper's report explains:
Flame retardants are a family of chemical compounds that reduce flammability or inhibit the spread of fire in a range of ways — from interfering with fire’s ability to consume oxygen, to forming a barrier, to acting as chemical coolants. Use of the chemicals rose greatly in the 1970s, as manufacturers increasingly put fast-burning synthetic materials and plastics in their products. Today, about 1.5 million tons of these compounds are used globally every year.
Various formulations of flame retardants are linked to a variety of possible health effects, all still under study. Some seem to be fairly benign, but others are suspected carcinogens. Some appear to interfere with the normal operation of hormones, notably thyroid hormones, while some, such as PBDEs, appear to affect brain development.
While the European Union has been banning different mixtures of flame retardants for more than a decade, particularly mixtures of the chemicals most known to have harmful effects like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has limited power to regulate such compounds.
The EPA's authority to more aggressively regulate such toxins is hampered by a law, called the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which allows manufacturers to conceal the chemical ingredients from consumers and block disclosure of the physical properties of such toxins under the guise of protecting trade secrets. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune last year, the law also bars EPA officials from "sharing information about those chemicals with other federal agencies, independent scientists, state health departments and the public."
With such a lack of federal oversight, some states have taken it upon themselves to pass legislation banning the chemical mixtures––namely, California, Washington, and Maine.
In 2011, following consumer pressure, retail giant WalMart banned PBDEs from all of items carried in its stores.
Yet, despite these isolated attempts to lower the amount of retardants in our environment, proliferation continues. A 2014 study of dust samples from 40 daycare centers in California found multiple flame retardants, including PBDEs, in every single sample. Even the EPA's own website states "some reports indicate that levels [of PBDEs] are increasing."
As the Times explained:
The compounds are often sprayed into fabrics and foams used in furniture, bedding and clothing, rather than chemically bonded to the material. So they are gradually shed. Often they attach to dust particles, which not only settle onto floors and shelves, but also waft outside through open doors and windows and air-conditioning systems.
Even the states that have banned retardants still have little power to regulate what replaces them and, as a recent test by the Washington State Department of Ecology found, many manufacturers are simply replacing the PBDEs with other unregulated and potentially toxic chemicals.
“Before we engage in the widespread use of chemicals with the potential to end up in everything rules need to be put in place," said R. Thomas Zoeller, a professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
And if nothing is done, Zoeller told the Times, "we put the next generation at any further risk.”