Pediatricians, Scientists, Firefighters Petition Government to Ban Products With Harmful Flame Retardants
The Problem: Harmful Flame Retardants in Household Products
Among the over 80,000 synthetic chemicals produced by industry, the class of organohalogens (compounds in which carbon is bonded to bromine, chlorine, or fluorine) is uniquely problematic. These chemicals are often toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative in our bodies and the environment. All 21 chemicals globally banned as Persistent Organic Pollutants under the Stockholm Convention are organohalogens.
One major use of organohalogens is as flame retardants that are added to furniture, children’s products, electronics, building materials and other home products. Toxic flame retardants can be found at pound levels in a typical home. The retardants are semi-volatile and continuously escape from products into house dust, which is ingested by humans and pets.
Biomonitoring studies find organohalogen flame retardants in the blood and body tissues of nearly all Americans tested, with the highest levels in Californians and in young children. These retardants have been found to cause adverse reproductive, genotoxic, immunotoxic, neurotoxic, and/or carcinogenic outcomes in animal studies. In humans they are associated with reduced IQ (similar to lead poisoning), reduced fertility, birth defects, and hormonal changes. Many are similar in structure or even identical to banned chemicals such as DDT, Mirex, and PCBs. If we can reduce human exposure to this class of toxic chemicals, we can reduce health problems and have a safer, healthier environment for all.
And surprisingly, the use of these retardants can be greatly reduced without impacting fire safety. Safer substitute chemicals and technologies are available. Flame retardants, as used to meet current standards for furniture and children’s products, do not increase overall fire safety. They delay ignition a few seconds and then burn to produce toxic fumes that cause most fire deaths and injuries.
Our Science-Based Petition to the CPSC
Given the toxicity and persistence of organohalogen flame retardants, a broad coalition of medical, firefighters, consumer and science groups is asking the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban household products containing any member of the class of organohalogen flame retardants. Download the full text of the petition here.
The petition is supported by detailed statements from a dozen scientists and physicians. It was initiated by the Green Science Policy Institute in collaboration with Earthjustice, and joined by a preeminent pediatrician and ten organizations who work on behalf of firefighters, children, people with learning disabilities, vulnerable populations and consumers generally. The petition asks the CPSC to adopt rules under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) to protect consumers from all organohalogen (or halogenated) flame retardants in four categories of household products:
- Any durable infant or toddler product, children’s toy, child care article, or other article intended for use by children.
- Any article of furniture sold for use in residences.
- Any mattress or mattress pad.
- Any electronic article with additive organohalogen flame retardants in its plastic casing.
Photo credit: Flickr @ Nuwandalice
The Petition is based on the following premises:
- Many consumer products are manufactured with organohalogen flame retardants, which migrate out of the products and into the indoor environment leading to human exposures, with children being most exposed and most impacted. Low-income communities have disproportionately high body burdens of these chemicals.
- All studied organohalogen flame retardants have been shown to present serious health concerns. Yet, historically, when one halogenated flame retardant is phased out due to concerns about toxicity, it is often replaced with another halogenated flame retardant with similar physical-chemical properties and similar toxicity.
- There is a strong scientific basis (which is laid out in the petition) for concluding that all halogenated flame retardants will present risks to human health. We believe that CPSC should regulate this entire class of physically and chemically similar flame retardants now, rather than wait until the toxicity of each of these chemicals is proven one at a time.
- Most flame retardants are not adequately regulated for health and environmental impacts. Even polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are now known to be associated with human health harm (including carcinogenicity, immune and endocrine disruption, and adverse reproductive and neurodevelopmental effects) are not banned in any consumer product in this country. PBDEs are no longer produced in the United States, but no law prevents importing consumer products containing PBDEs.
- The CPSC has authority under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act to ban consumer products containing any organohalogen flame retardants because these chemicals are “hazardous substances,” within the meaning of the FHSA and labeling is not adequate to protect consumers. We urge the CPSC to use that authority now.
This petition seeks a new approach for addressing harmful chemicals: regulation by class rather than one-by-one. This will reduce the risk of regrettable substitutions, whereby banned or phased out toxic chemicals have generally been replaced with chemical cousins with similarly harmful properties. Learn more about the advantages of addressing harmful chemicals as classes at SixClasses.org.
Why Scientists Support the Petition
Organohalogen flame retardants have highly persistent and toxic combustion by-products, readily bioaccumulate and can resist breakdown inside cells, can modify the DNA or disrupt its function, and can act as endocrine disruptors.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no sound evidence showing a lack of health harm for any organohalogen flame retardants studied to date.
There is a sufficient body of knowledge to conclude that all organohalogen flame retardants – because they are semi-volatile organic compounds – will tend to migrate out of the consumer products in which they are present in additive form, resulting in human exposure.
The inevitability of this human exposure, combined with the evidence showing that these compounds have toxicity, leads to the conclusion that all organohalogen flame retardants present in consumer products in additive form pose significant risks to human health.
All of the non-polymeric OFRs [organohalogen flame retardants] that we have screened were found to be either of high concern or toxic. The list of studied chemicals includes a large number of OFRs in use or available for potential use in consumer products.
The results of our screening show that critical toxicological data are lacking for many OFRs, and that those for which data are available have the potential to pose significant hazards for human or environmental health.
— David Eastmond, PhD — Download his full statement with supporting materials and CV.
Professor and Chair, Dept. of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, and Research Toxicologist, University of California, Riverside
Properties shared by all organohalogen flame-retardants as a class can lead to adverse effects for human health. This class of chemicals easily enters the cells, may decrease the cells’ ability to keep out other toxic compounds, and can cause adverse health effects.
Because of these findings, my professional opinion is that consumer products containing non-polymeric organohalogen flame-retardants in additive form (which results in exposure) should be banned.
I strongly believe that there is a need to regulate hazardous chemicals, such as organohalogen flame retardants, as classes or compound families. The mass manufacture of toxic chemicals that lack effective routes of degradation creates unnecessary problems for current and future generations.
The solution to this problem ultimately depends on curtailing the use and production of chemicals sharing structural and functional similarity to known hazardous compounds, rather than making minor modifications to the carbon backbone or halogen substitution pattern, and then hoping for a different, better outcome.
— Rolf Halden, PhD — Download his full statement and CV.
Director, Center for Environmental Security and Professor of Engineering, Arizona State University; Adjunct Faculty, John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Women with higher levels of flame retardants in their blood: (i) took significantly longer to get pregnant; (ii) had babies with lower birth weight; and (iii) had lower thyroid hormone levels during pregnancy. We also assessed the development of over 300 children and found that, by the time they were 5 to 7 years old, their mother’s flame retardant exposure during pregnancy was associated with lower IQ (a decrease by 6 points on average), attention problems, and impaired fine motor coordination, particularly in the non-dominant hand.
Based on my research on the impacts of PBDE flame retardants on the health of pregnant women and their children and the increasing evidence of harm from the replacement flame retardants, it is my professional opinion that all organohalogen flame retardants may pose similar risks, especially to fetuses and young children.
— Kim Harley, PhD — Download her full statement and CV.
Associate Adjunct Professor in Maternal and Child Health and Associate Director for Health Effects, Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, University of California, Berkeley
Prenatal exposure to penta-BDEs is associated with lower scores on indices of both cognition (e.g., IQ) and behavior throughout childhood.
My professional opinion is that there is reason to be concerned that the entire class of organohalogen flame retardants may cause injury or illness to humans, particularly to fetuses and young children. To prevent human exposure, these chemicals should not be used in additive form in consumer products.
We have studied the endocrine disrupting activities of Firemaster® 550 (FM 550), a new-generation flame-retardant mixture. FM 550 might now be the most commonly used flame retardant in polyurethane foam.
FM 550 exerts anti-androgenic-like activity in prostate cancer [which] implies a high probability that FM 550 will also exert its anti-androgenic effects on non-cancerous processes. These include the development and function of the male reproductive system (prostate, seminal vesicles, penis, testes, epididymis), spermatogenesis, and male fertility as well as normal ovary development in females.
The available data on organohalogen flame retardants indicates a high likelihood that other yet unstudied members of this class of chemicals are also endocrine disruptors, which means they can impair normal cell development, and thus cause substantial personal injury or substantial illness.
In addition to increasing the amount of acutely toxic gases and particles produced, the presence of organohalogen flame retardants in products during fires can increase the amounts of persistent organic pollutants produced by combustion processes, thus increasing the chronic toxicity of fires.
In particular, incomplete combustion of products containing organohalogen flame retardants leads to the formation of halogenated dioxins and furans, substances that are considered amongst the most toxic chemicals known.
Organohalongen flame retardants and their combustion products are some of the potentially carcinogenic compounds that firefighters become exposed to on the job at higher levels than the general population. As such, deaths could potentially be avoided by banning, or at least restricting, the use of the entire class of organohalogen flame retardants in household products. Given that organohalogen flame retardants in furniture, mattresses, children’s products and electronics casings as currently used do not stop fires, but increase the risk of cancer for firefighters, I see no justification for their use.
We found that the current levels of exposure to organohalogen flame retardants are often above health based guidelines.
Our 2011 study indicated that banning individual flame retardants is ineffective because manufacturers tend to replace them with other chemicals with similar structures and hazards, including chemicals with uncharacterized toxicity.
— Ruthann Rudel, MS — Download her full statement with supporting materials and CV.
Director of Research, Silent Spring Institute; Adjunct Research Associate, Brown University Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
In general, halogenated organic molecules (i) are more resistant to metabolic break down, (ii) cross biologic membranes more readily, and (iii) gain access to cells and tissues more readily than non-halogenated compounds. Because of this, virtually all halogenated flame retardants have adverse impacts when they interact with cells and tissues of living organisms.
This combination of circumstances – biologically active compounds, increased resistance to biologic degradation, ready access to biologic tissues, and widespread exposure – justifies evaluation of organohalogen flame retardants as a class and replacement with safer alternatives.
Dioxins and furans have been found as impurities in organohalogen flame retardants in consumer products, can form from certain aromatic organohalogen flame retardants during the normal use of household products containing them, and can form from all organhalogen flame retardants when products containing them burn during household fires.
Dioxins and furans are likely human carcinogens and have been linked – at very low doses – to a wide range of other adverse health effects.
Quotes from Petitioners
In order to grow and thrive, every child needs a safe and healthy environment. One growing threat to child health and safety is toxic flame retardant chemicals found in many common household and children’s products. The American Academy of Pediatrics has joined this petition to urge the CPSC to help protect children from the health and developmental effects of these damaging chemicals, which are especially harmful during critical windows of development for their growing minds and bodies. Children’s natural behaviors – playing on the floor, exploring different surfaces, putting things in their mouths – make them uniquely vulnerable to flame retardants and the harmful fumes and dust they emit. These products must be made safer if we are to make children’s environments safer and secure the foundations of health for every child.
— Sandra G. Hassink, MD, President, American Academy of Pediatrics
Organohalogen flame retardants are global contaminants that must be banned to further protect the health of people and the environment worldwide. Health care professionals are encouraged to incorporate an environmental exposure history from their patients in order to make a comprehensive list of recommendations for their overall health and safety.
— Farzanna S. Haffizulla, MD, President, American Medical Women’s Association
Consumers rightly expect the furniture and children’s products in their homes to meet flammability standards – but not at the expense of being exposed to toxic chemicals. CPSC should ban products with these hazardous flame retardants, and encourage manufacturers to use smolder-resistant fabrics and fire-resistant barrier materials instead.
— Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., Director, Consumer Safety and Sustainability, Consumer Reports
We urge the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to grant this petition and take steps to ensure that consumer products such as children’s products, furniture, mattresses and parts of electronics do not contain a class of flame retardants, organohalogens, that have been associated with numerous and serious health problems. The vast majority of consumers are unwittingly exposing their children and their families to increased risks when they purchase and use these products.
— Rachel Weintraub, Legislative Director and General Counsel, Consumer Federation of America, Co-counsel on this Petition
It’s time to stop moving from one harmful flame retardant to its chemical cousin. By phasing out the entire class of organohalogen flame retardants, we can have healthier consumer products.
— Arlene Blum, Founder and Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute
When toxic flame retardants burn – and they do burn – it creates a serious health risk for fire fighters. There is significant scientific data that shows the association between firefighting, exposure to deadly toxins and cancer. That’s why the IAFF is committed to finding solutions to provide toxic free fire safety.
— Harold Schaitberger, General President, International Association of Fire Fighters
Hidden chemicals in products for babies and children is a hazard no parent can protect their child from without help from regulators. We strongly support removing this class of flame retardants from children’s products.
— Nancy Cowles, Executive Director, Kids in Danger
It’s critical that the Latino community understand the health risks associated with toxic exposure to dangerous chemicals in consumer products. LULAC joins this petition as part of our ongoing effort to raise awareness about environmental health issues that disproportionately impact Latinos at home, in the workplace and beyond.
— Brent Wilkes, Executive Director, League of United Latin American Citizens
Recent scientific studies show that children more highly exposed to flame retardant chemicals in the womb have lower IQs and problems with learning and behavior. These problems are lasting, and affect children’s ability to achieve their full potential in school and in life. The science is in on this class of flame retardant chemicals; they harm brain development, and have no business being in consumer goods.
— Nancie Payne, President, Learning Disabilities Association of America
Unhealthy environments lead to unhealthy lives. Studies show that children from communities of color have significantly higher body burdens of flame retardant chemicals. As an organization committed to improving the health of Hispanic and other underserved populations, it is critical that we address toxic exposure that threatens the wellbeing of our children and undermines their future.
— Dr. Elena Rios, MD, MSPH, President & CEO, National Hispanic Medical Association
This petition to the CPSC is of critical importance to people who are disproportionately exposed to flame retardants: the large groups of working people who are exposed both on the job as well as when in their homes. The impact on fire fighters has received a lot of well-deserved attention based on their exposure to toxic fumes released by these products when they burn. But workers involved in manufacturing or building homes using products containing flame retardants are largely being kept in the dark about their exposures. It’s time to move to safer, less toxic ways to protect all of us from fires.
— Gail Bateson, Executive Director, Worksafe
When pediatricians, firefighters, scientists, advocates for children with learning disabilities, advocates for disproportionately affected Latino communities and the most respected consumer advocates in the country come together to sound the alarm about toxic flame retardants in household products, the Consumer Product Safety Commission should take notice – and take action. Ridding these toxics from the many products we use everyday would improve the health of most people in the United States, and especially children.
— Eve Gartner, Earthjustice, Co-counsel on this Petition
In the Media
- Hawthorne M. Federal panel votes to warn public about flame retardants in baby products, furniture. Chicago Tribune. September 20, 2017.
- Gross A. Will This Be the Nail in the Coffin of Toxic Flame Retardants? Mother Jones. April 3, 2015.
- FireChief. Firefighters, consumer advocates push to ban flame-retardant products. April 1, 2015.
- Blum A. & Gartner E. Government asked to ban household products with harmful class of chemicals. The Hill, Congress Blog. March 31, 2015.
- Peeples L. Stop Playing ‘Whack-A-Mole’ With Toxic Flame Retardants, Health Advocates Urge. Huffington Post. March 31, 2015.
- Wheeler L. Safety groups petition consumer bureau to ban flame retardant products. The Hill. March 31, 2015.
- Lewis T. Coalition seeks a ban on flame retardants in common consumer products. Consumer Affairs. March 31, 2015.
- Pearson S. Groups want to classify many flame retardants as hazardous substances. Greenwire. March 31, 2015.
- Bienkowski B. Groups petition federal agency to ban products containing certain flame-retardants. Environmental Health News. March 31, 2015.
- RealEstateRama. Health, Firefighter, Consumer and Science Groups Seek Ban on Household Products With Toxic Chemical Flame Retardants. March 31, 2015.
- The San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame Retardants – a scientific consensus statement on the harm from this class of chemicals
- SixClasses.org – a webinar series on the six classes of harmful chemicals commonly used in consumer products
- Chicago Tribune, Playing with Fire
- Toxic Hot Seat
- Click here for past media coverage of our work on reducing the use of harmful flame retardants.
Scientist Spotlight: The Scientists behind our Consumer Products Petition
Our blog series, “Scientist Spotlight: The Scientists Behind our Consumer Products Petition,” highlights each month the research of one of the scientists who submitted statements in support of our petition to the CPSC.