Toxic Flame Retardants in the News Again
Last month, at a UN conference in Switzerland, 160 countries agreed to stop producing and using a flame retardant called HBCD. The common flame retardant, widely used in plastics, electronics, textiles—and especially, building insulation—is a persistent organic pollutant that accumulates in the environment. It’s been found in far-flung places where it doesn’t belong, such as the Arctic Circle.
Flame retardants are chemicals added to a wide variety of products to render them less likely to burst into flames in the presence of an open flame. It’s nice that a stray ember from the fireplace, for instance, isn’t likely to spark a blaze if it strikes your couch while you’re sitting on it. But it’s not so nice when the chemicals used to make your couch flame-resistant turn out to be toxins that may be doing more harm than good.
Yet, that’s been the case repeatedly in the past few decades. Chemical flame retardants have been used on—and banned from—all manner of consumer products. Examples include chemicals that were once routinely used on children’s pajamas—until it was discovered these poisons are more dangerous than the risk of fire. Chemicals called PDBEs have been linked to lower intelligence and hyperactivity in early childhood among babies who are exposed to them in the womb. These chemicals were removed from the U.S. market in 2004, but they persist in many homes and offices.
Other alternatives seem little better. Last year it was revealed that the flame retardant known as “Firemaster 550” is an endocrine disruptor. It’s been linked to extreme weight gain, early onset of puberty and heart disease in animals. Retardant chemicals have been identified in Americans’ house dust and in their bloodstreams. Earlier this year, for example, researchers found a chemical banned from children’s pajamas 30 years ago. In office workers’ blood. Known as TDCPP, the chemicals are still used to make polyurethane foam less flammable. The foam is used in furniture and other products. TDCPP affects reproduction and thyroid function and may be carcinogenic.
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Patisaul HB, Roberts SC, Mabrey N, McCaffrey KA, Gear RB, Braun J, Belcher SM, Stapleton HM. Accumulation and endocrine disrupting effects of the flame retardant mixture Firemaster® 550 in rats: an exploratory assessment. J Biochem Mol Toxicol. 2013 Feb;27(2):124-36. doi: 10.1002/jbt.21439. Epub 2012 Nov 8.
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