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Will federal safety panel ban toxic flame retardants in household products?
Chicago Tribune - 9/20/2017
Sept. 20--Manufacturers long ago stopped adding a cancer-causing flame retardant to children's pajamas, but federal officials failed to ban the chemical during the late 1970s and as recently as five years ago it was the most widely used fire-resistant compound in household furniture.
Scientists and health advocates want the government to stop repeating the mistakes it made with the chemical, known as chlorinated tris.
On Wednesday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission plans to vote on a petition that would ban tris and chemically related flame retardants from children's products, furniture, mattresses and household electronics. Many of the compounds have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. A growing body of research suggests they can irreparably harm fetuses and young children by mimicking hormones during early stages of life.
"Every chemical tested in this class has adverse effects," Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told the commission at a hearing last week. "Unless we approach this as a class, we are going to find ourselves in the same situation five years, 10 years down the road. The evidence has built to the point that all of these chemicals, and all future chemicals of this class, are going to escape into the environment and then into people."
Proposed by a coalition of health groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the petition targets chemicals highlighted by the Tribune's 2012 "Playing With Fire" investigation, which revealed how a deceptive campaign by the tobacco and chemical industries led to the widespread use of toxic, ineffective flame retardants in American homes.
Among other findings, the Tribune outlined how the chemical industry replaced some harmful flame retardants with chemically similar but largely unregulated compounds -- a pattern known as "regrettable substitution" because the new chemicals often are just as worrisome.
With the Trump administration generally opposed to new business regulations, the commission's staff is advising the panel to reject the petition. Echoing arguments from the chemical industry, the staff review concluded there isn't enough evidence to outlaw an entire class of substances -- a step the federal government has never taken without a direct order from Congress -- and cautioned the agency doesn't have enough money or manpower to enforce a ban.
Three safety commissioners have told advocates they support invoking the commission's rarely used authority to ban the chemicals, known as organohalogens. All five members of the panel were appointed by then-President Barack Obama, though President Donald Trump will get his first opportunity to influence its agenda when Commissioner Marietta Robinson's term ends next month.
The chemicals at issue contain either bromine or chlorine -- halogens that at high levels take the place of oxygen and slow the combustive reaction that creates and spreads fire.
Government and academic researchers have found the amount commonly added to household furniture fails to protect people from fire in a meaningful way. But because of their chemistry, many popular flame retardants spread easily and widely, persist in the environment and build up in the food chain.
Industry groups continue to promote the chemicals as lifesavers. "Fire risk is still a very real issue," said Robert Simon, a vice president of the American Chemistry Council, the industry's chief trade group. "This (petition) has the potential to undermine fire safety and compromise the fire safety of some products."
The safety commission vote comes as the Environmental Protection Agency struggles in the Trump era to follow through on promises made during a bipartisan overhaul of the nation's chief chemical safety law.
Elliot Kaye, a commissioner and former CPSC staff member, said last week that the panel could exempt certain chemicals later if future studies found they were safe.
"If at the end of the day, we look back at this decision and determine we made a mistake, I would far rather make a decision that is too protective of children rather than one that falls far short of that," Kaye said. "One can always say there is not enough information. There is always going to be doubt, whether it is a criminal case or civil case or a regulatory decision. In this case, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence."
Under pressure from retailers and the public, some companies already are moving toward safer alternatives for household products. "As you see new chemicals come on, I don't think you are going to see regrettable substitution in the future," said Thomas Osimitz, a private researcher who has conducted studies for chemical companies and serves on an industry advisory panel.
The safety commission's staff also concluded the market is changing fast, making the petition unnecessary. Yet academic scientists, advocacy groups and state regulators keep finding organohalogen flame retardants in recently manufactured products.
Any furniture-maker that still adds organohalogens to furniture must attach a warning label required under a California law prompted by the Tribune investigation. In July, the state agency that enforces the law reported that 22 percent of the furniture it sampled this year still contained the chemicals.
Electronics are another concern.
Rick Goss, a lobbyist for industry trade groups, testified last week that electronics manufacturers "have long moved past" a group of highly toxic organohalogens known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. But in a report to be released Wednesday, advocacy groups say a respected laboratory found organohalogens in the plastic enclosures of 11 of the 12 televisions it tested earlier this year.
Two of the TVs contained a PBDE known as deca that has been banned in five states, including Washington, where the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future and Clean Production Action groups purchased the products. Five of the TVs contained a chemically similar compound and eight contained another brominated chemical that researchers recently found in the placentas of pregnant women.
Samples from the television enclosures were tested by Heather Stapleton, a Duke University chemist and one of the first scientists who discovered that most human exposure to flame retardants comes from ingesting surprisingly large amounts of contaminated household dust.
Stapleton and several colleagues tracked how chlorinated tris, the carcinogen removed from children's pajamas nearly 40 years ago, later became the top flame retardant in upholstered furniture cushions. The chemical also was commonly added to nursing pillows, highchairs and diaper-changing pads, the researchers found.
Between 2014 and 2016, consumers sent Stapleton more than 1,100 samples of polyurethane foam from household products. About a quarter of the samples contained organohalogens, and chlorinated tris again was the one most frequently detected.
In 2012, testing by another lab commissioned by the Tribune found chlorinated tris and related chemicals in popular brands of baby mattresses, even though the safety commission had said manufacturers could easily comply with national flammability standards without using the chemicals.
"It's really important to close the door on these organohalogen flame retardants once and for all," said Eve Gartner, an attorney for the nonprofit group Earthjustice who helped prepare the petition.
Until last year, the EPA was hobbled by a law that allowed industry to put chemicals on the market without evaluating their safety and made it practically impossible to ban toxic substances after health hazards were documented.
Congress approved a new law intended to improve safety. But rules unveiled in June by the Trump administration included several business-friendly changes overseen by a former industry official who now holds a top post at the EPA.
Career staff at the agency pushed back in a memo that argued the administration's changes would effectively prevent the EPA from taking action when chemicals "present an unreasonable risk to health or the environment." Since then, the administration chose to fill the agency's top chemical safety post with a researcher who for years has helped the tobacco and chemical industries downplay concerns about their products.
Several researchers who testified or wrote letters in support of the safety commission petition see it as another opportunity to force the chemical industry to change.
"These chemicals are robbing our children and grandchildren of critical human potential," said Thomas Zoeller, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who has shown how flame retardants and other halogens interfere with hormones during early brain development. "While these effects might not be visible on the faces our children, they are no less important to them individually or to our society."
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