By Nancy Alderman
The United States needs to rethink its policies on the uses of flame-retardants in consumer products. These policies are outdated and pose a significant risk to human health and the environment.
In response to these outdated policies, the Connecticut legislature this year has a bill (Bill 5035) that, if passed, will remove the flame-retardant “Tris” from infant products.
Tris is a neurotoxin and a carcinogen. Because of its harmful health effects, Tris was banned from children’s pajamas in the 1970s, but amazingly it remains in almost all other infant products, such as changing tables, mattresses, and baby carriers.
The history of flame-retardant use in the United States is a story of substituting one dangerous flame-retardant for another. The country lived through decades when asbestos was used as a fire-retardant. Then when asbestos was proven too dangerous to be used, the country moved over to PCBs, and five decades later, when PCBs were deemed too dangerous for use, the country moved on to chlorinated and brominated flame-retardants.
Now, the newest flame-retardant being used is called “Firemaster 550.” In laboratory tests involving animals, the compound has been linked to obesity and hormone disruption.
Flame-retardants are presently in almost all our consumer products. They are in our mattresses our furniture our electronic equipment, our cars, they are in almost everything and they are not labeled. The fact that consumer products are not labeled when flame retardants have been included in a product means that the public has no way of protecting themselves form exposures — even if they want to.
Flame-retardants are also in all our infant products. Therefore, when a baby is brought home from the hospital, it is placed on a crib mattress that has been infused with flame retardants, infants changing tables, nursing pads, infant seats, all the products the infant will use contain flame-retardants in them.
Flame-retardants cross the mother’s placenta and therefore get into the cord blood of fetuses — and the ensuing baby gets another dose of flame-retardants through the mother’s milk. Children have 4-5 times the level of exposures to flame-retardants as adults, due to their small body size. Firefighters have 3 times the levels of flame-retardants in their blood as the general public.
Fame-retardants are not benign chemicals. Some of them are neuro-toxic, some are carcinogenic, some are hormone disrupters and some affect the thyroid gland. Some of the Tris chemicals that are found in infant products have been shown to be carcinogenic.
A California study (CHAMACOS) of children exposed to the flame-retardant PBDEs is the most comprehensive one to evaluate cognitive declines in school-aged children exposed. Although most forms of PBDEs have been banned, many household items, including couch cushions, still contain them.
According to that study, prenatal and childhood exposure to flame-retardant chemicals may lead to poorer attention, motor skills and IQ scores in children at ages 5 and 7, according to an ongoing California study. Findings add to the growing health concerns over these chemicals, which are commonly found in U.S. homes.
All of these flame retardant chemicals are proving just too dangerous to be used in all situations.
Because of the risks that flame retardants pose to both health and the environment, the wisest policies for flame retardants should be that they only be used in “high-fire-risk” situations, such as in airplanes, cars, trains, etc.
On the other hand, they should not be used in “low-fire- risk” situations where the risk for flame-retardant exposures outweighs the risk from fire.
Nancy Alderman is president of North Haven-based Environment and Human Health Inc. EHHI, has written a comprehensive 107-page report, “Flame Retardants: The Case for Policy Change,” where the health risks that flame-retardants pose are laid out, and sweeping policy changes are recommended. That report can be found at http://www.ehhi.org/flame/