We didn’t really need another reason to pass the Safer Alternatives Bill so that we can start to transition away from toxic chemicals and to safer alternatives, but this week we got one anyway.
A study of products designed for newborns, babies, and toddlers – including car seats, breast feeding pillows, changing pads, crib wedges, bassinet mattresses and other items made with polyurethane foam – found that 80% of products tested contained chemical flame retardants that are considered toxic, according to a peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Science & Technology Journal. Other retardants discovered had so little health and safety data on them it is not possible to know their effects at this time. The same flame retardants found in some of the products are also found in children’s bodies and widely dispersed throughout the environment and in food.
The new study analyzed 102 products for the presence of halogenated flame retardants. Interior foam samples were tested from nursing pillows, baby carriers, car seats, changing table pads, high chairs, strollers, bassinets, portable cribs, walkers, changing pads, baby carriers, sleeping wedges, baby tub insert, bath slings, glider rockers, and other essential child care items. Samples were submitted from purchase locations around the United States.
“Pregnant moms and babies are particularly vulnerable to exposure from toxic chemicals like these flame retardants,” said Cindy Luppi, New England Co-Director for Clean Water Action. “Common sense tells us that chemicals that contribute to cancer and learning disabilities simply do not belong in car seats, baby bedding and other products produced explicitly for children’s use. We urge manufacturers and public officials to take action to pull children from harm’s way and replace these hazardous chemicals with safer approaches to fire safety.”
- Four products contained penta-BDE, a substance so toxic it is banned in 172 countries and 12 U.S. states, and subject to a national phaseout.
- 29 products contained TDCPP or chlorinated Tris, a possible human carcinogen that was removed from children’s pajamas over health concerns in the late 1970s. In animal studies chlorinated Tris has been associated with cancer of the liver, kidney, brain and testis, among other harmful effects.
- 14 products contained TCEP, a carcinogenic flame retardant on California’s Proposition 65 list of cancer-causing chemicals. Laboratory animal studies show TCEP causes tumors in the kidney and thyroid glands. In other laboratory animal studies, TCEP has been shown to cause reductions in fertility and poor sperm quality and to interfere with brain signaling, causing hyperactivity. TCEP is no longer produced in Europe and has been identified by Canada as posing a risk to human health.
- 16 products contained Firemaster 550/600 flame retardants. EPA has predicted toxicity and required additional testing.
- 14 products contained TCPP, which is similar in chemical structure to Chlorinated Tris and TCEP and has limited health information.
Consumer Advocates and Environmental Health Groups single out an antiquated California regulation, Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), as the reason for widespread use of flame retardants in baby products containing polyurethane foam. Any such product must meet TB 117 in order to be sold in California, and product makers tend to manufacture to the most difficult standard. Therefore, baby products purchased outside California may also be treated with flame retardants. Because of California TB 117, likely Americans everywhere are being subject to chronic exposure to these chemicals. Many products purchased outside California had a TB 117-compliant label and were treated with chemical flame retardants, according to findings from the new Baby Product study.
The Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety, a new national network of health, consumer, and environmental groups, is calling for a modernization of California TB 117 in light of new scientific, health, environmental, and fire toxicity information about chemical flame retardants.
Three corporations produce halogenated flame retardant chemicals: Albemarle, Chemtura, and Israeli Chemicals, Ltd. Chemtura’s product, Firemaster 550, exemplifies how new chemicals enter the American market. Chemtura Corporation first marketed Firemaster 550 in 2004 as an environmentally friendly replacement for pentaBDE, which was subject to a national phase-out that same year due to health concerns and, notably, which had been grandfathered in as ‘safe’ – without supporting data – when the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976. When the notice of manufacture was filed with the Environmental Protection Agency for Firemaster 550, EPA did not require pre-market testing of the chemical. Instead, EPA relied on the manufacturers own determination of safety. They also approved Chemtura’s confidentiality request for the two main ingredients in Firemaster 550, even though company test data showed the ingredients were a “high hazard concern” for both short-term and long-term ecotoxicity, meaning they could cause damage to fish, invertebrates or algae if they got into the water. Since then, Firemaster 550 has been found in house dust in Boston and in sewage sludge and wastewater plants in California, as well as baby products sold across America.
Halogenated flame retardants added to fabric, to foam used in furniture and other products, to carpet padding, and to electronic equipment, also create more smoke and soot when these materials smolder or burn than do materials without these chemicals. And the smoke is deadly. First, inhalation can be deeply damaging to lungs. Fire fighters wear protective gear, but gear may not always function as intended. Second, intense smoke can be disorienting and disabling, making it impossible for fire fighters and building occupants to reach safety when surrounded by dense smoke and soot.
Smoke can also carry toxic chemicals, including carbon monoxide, a deadly gas, and dioxins and furans, produced when chlorinated or brominated flame retardants burn. Dioxins and furans are some of the most toxic substances known, and have been associated with certain cancers, including soft tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, adult-onset leukemia, multiple myeloma, breast cancer, bladder cancer and stomach cancer. These chemicals are also associated with chloracne, cardiovascular disease, diabetes II, thyroid dysfunction and immune suppression.
Firefighters have a higher incidence of heart disease, lung disease, and cancer compared to other workers. Getting chlorinated and brominated flame retardants out of their working environment could help reduce their chances of becoming ill.
The fire safety benefits of adding flame retardants to meet the TB117 flammability standard are questionable. According to Vyto Babrauskas, the author of Fire Behavior of Upholstered Furniture and Mattresses, (William Andrew Publishing, Norwich NY 2001), the only textbook ever written on furniture flammability, TB117 is “so weak that it does not achieve any useful fire safety purpose.” TB117 tests bare foam’s resistance to a small flame. But the foam in furniture lies beneath a layer of fabric. The fabric will ignite first and by the time the flame reaches the foam, it is too large for the chemicals that meet TB117 to have an effect.
Alternatives to organohalogen flame retardant chemicals include using less flammable materials, design changes, and safer chemicals. Stronger electrical codes and modernized building and fire codes, as well as increased use of smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and self-extinguishing cigarettes, will all continue to help prevent fires without using toxic chemicals. These measures plus an overall decrease in cigarette smoking in the U.S. have helped reduce fire deaths by 60% since 1980, making increasing use of chemical flame retardants unwise and unnecessary.