Michael Hawthorne Chicago Tribune
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.
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.
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.”