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KQED News interviews Executive Director Dr. Arlene Blum about her research on flame retardants, policy, and fire safety

Introduction

To establish sound, evidence-based chemicals policies, key stakeholders need to be informed and connected with each other: the scientists who study chemicals; health and environmental organizations involved in advocacy; the product manufacturers that use the chemicals; policy makers; and the public. We communicate with these groups by publishing peer-reviewed research papers, as well as via whitepapers, editorials, articles and popular media.

Our unique expertise in both science and policy allows us to collaborate on policy-relevant research projects, and also distill complex scientific information for various stakeholders.

See below for a selection of our scientific publications by topic.

Healthy Buildings

For improved energy efficiency, the use of foam plastic insulation materials is increasing in buildings, but outdated insulation flammability standards lead to the addition of flame retardant chemicals that are either known to be toxic or lack adequate information. We have been working with architects, scientists, builders, policymakers and fire safety experts to find ways to reduce the use of flame retardants in building materials and create healthier buildings.

Peer Reviewed Papers

Abstract


US building codes balance the consideration of hazards to public safety, health and general welfare. Current codes require foam plastic insulation materials to have both protection by a thermal barrier and compliance with Steiner Tunnel test requirements. The Steiner Tunnel test is met by adding flame-retardant chemicals to the foam. Studies demonstrate that the Steiner Tunnel test does not give reliable fire safety results for foam plastic insulations. Foams that meet the Steiner Tunnel test still pose a fire hazard if used without a code-mandated thermal barrier. Insulations protected by a thermal barrier are fire safe and the use of flame retardants does not provide any additional benefit. Evidence is examined of the health and ecological impacts from the added flame-retardant chemicals. Changing the building codes could prevent health and environmental harm from the toxicity of these substances without a reduction in fire safety. Plastic foam insulations that are protected by a thermal barrier should be exempted from the Steiner Tunnel test and the need to use flame retardants. This change would align US codes with code regulations in Sweden and Norway and ensure the fire safety as well as improve health and environmental impacts. Read the full study

Flame Retardants

Flame retardant chemicals are widely used in commercial and consumer products to meet flammability requirements. Many of these chemicals are persistent, bioaccumulative, and/ or toxic, presenting significant risks to human health and the environment.

Editorials

Abstract


The “San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame Retardants” addresses the growing concern in the scientific community about the persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic properties of brominated and chlorinated organic flame retardants (BFRs and CFRs, respectively) and the exposure to humans and wildlife as a result of intensive use. Nearly 150 scientists from 22 countries have signed the statement since it was presented at the 30th International Symposium on Halogenated Persistent Organic Pollutants (Dioxin 2010), held 12–17 September 2010 in San Antonio, Texas. The scientist signatories are experts on the health effects and environmental fate of BFRs and CFRs and environmental contaminants in general. The International Panel on Chemical Pollution (IPCP), an international network of scientists working on various aspects of chemical pollution, also has approved the statement. Read the full article

Abstract

Although smoking and fire deaths are rapidly decreasing in the United States, proposed new flammability regulations could add tens of millions of additional pounds of potentially toxic fire-retardant chemicals to bed clothing, pillows, and foam within upholstered furniture. In the 1970s, the flame retardants brominated tris [tris (2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate] and chlorinated tris [tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate] were removed from use in children’s sleepwear after being found to be mutagens that could be absorbed into children’s bodies. They are also probable human carcinogens. Today, chlorinated tris is the second most used fire retardant in furniture, found in amounts up to 5% of the foam’s weight. How did this happen? Read the full article

Highly Fluorinated Chemicals

Highly fluorinated chemicals are both incredibly resistant to breakdown and very useful. For instance, they can make products grease or stain-resistant, nonstick, or waterproof. However, this comes at a cost. The highly fluorinated chemicals that have been well-studied have been associated with liver malfunction, hormonal changes, thyroid disruption, high cholesterol, obesity, ulcerative colitis, lower birth weight and size, and kidney and testicular cancer. Other highly fluorinated chemicals are suspected to cause similar health problems, but have not been well tested. Because they are resistant to breakdown, these chemicals can persist in our bodies for years. In the environment, they can last for millions of years.

Peer Reviewed Papers

Abstract


Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are highly persistent synthetic chemicals, some of which have been associated with cancer, developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, and other health effects. PFASs in grease-resistant food packaging can leach into food and increase dietary exposure. We collected ∼400 samples of food contact papers, paperboard containers, and beverage containers from fast food restaurants throughout the United States and measured total fluorine using particle-induced γ-ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy. PIGE can rapidly and inexpensively measure total fluorine in solid-phase samples. We found that 46% of food contact papers and 20% of paperboard samples contained detectable fluorine (>16 nmol/cm2). Liquid chromatography/high-resolution mass spectrometry analysis of a subset of 20 samples found perfluorocarboxylates, perfluorosulfonates, and other known PFASs and/or unidentified polyfluorinated compounds (based on nontargeted analysis). The total peak area for PFASs was higher in 70% of samples (10 of 14) with a total fluorine level of >200 nmol/cm2 compared to six samples with a total fluorine level ofRead the full study.

Abstract


Drinking water contamination with poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) poses risks to the developmental, immune, metabolic, and endocrine health of consumers. We present a spatial analysis of 2013–2015 national drinking water PFAS concentrations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (US EPA) third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR3) program. The number of industrial sites that manufacture or use these compounds, the number of military fire training areas, and the number of wastewater treatment plants are all significant predictors of PFAS detection frequencies and concentrations in public water supplies. Among samples with detectable PFAS levels, each additional military site within a watershed’s eight-digit hydrologic unit is associated with a 20% increase in PFHxS, a 10% increase in both PFHpA and PFOA, and a 35% increase in PFOS. The number of civilian airports with personnel trained in the use of aqueous film-forming foams is significantly associated with the detection of PFASs above the minimal reporting level. We find drinking water supplies for 6 million U.S. residents exceed US EPA’s lifetime health advisory (70 ng/L) for PFOS and PFOA. Lower analytical reporting limits and additional sampling of smaller utilities serving Read the full study.

Children’s Products

An outdated California standard led to the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals in children’s products containing foam across North America.

As of January 1, 2014, new children’s products are not required to contain added flame retardants. Consumers should avoid TB117 labels and ask retailers for flame retardant-free products. Car seats will continue to contain flame retardants.

Peer Reviewed Papers

Abstract


With the phase-out of PentaBDE in 2004, alternative flame retardants are being used in polyurethane foam to meet flammability standards. However, insufficient information is available on the identity of the flame retardants currently in use. Baby products containing polyurethane foam must meet California state furniture flammability standards, which likely affects the use of flame retardants in baby products throughout the U.S. However, it is unclear which products contain flame retardants and at what concentrations. In this study we surveyed baby products containing polyurethane foam to investigate how often flame retardants were used in these products. Information on when the products were purchased and whether they contained a label indicating that the product meets requirements for a California flammability standard were recorded. When possible, we identified the flame retardants being used and their concentrations in the foam. Foam samples collected from 101 commonly used baby products were analyzed. Eighty samples contained an identifiable flame retardant additive, and all but one of these was either chlorinated or brominated. The most common flame retardant detected was tris(1,3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate (TDCPP; detection frequency 36%), followed by components typically found in the Firemaster550 commercial mixture (detection frequency 17%). Five samples contained PBDE congeners commonly associated with PentaBDE, suggesting products with PentaBDE are still in-use. Two chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs) not previously documented in the environment were also identified, one of which is commercially sold as V6 (detection frequency 15%) and contains tris(2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP) as an impurity. As an addition to this study, we used a portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer to estimate the bromine and chlorine content of the foam and investigate whether XRF is a useful method for predicting the presence of halogenated flame retardant additives in these products. A significant correlation was observed for bromine; however, there was no significant relationship observed for chlorine. To the authors knowledge, this is the first study to report on flame retardants in baby products. In addition, we have identified two chlorinated OPFRs not previously documented in the environment or in consumer products. Based on exposure estimates conducted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), we predict that infants may receive greater exposure to TDCPP from these products compared to the average child or adult from upholstered furniture, all of which are higher than acceptable daily intake levels of TDCPP set by the CPSC. Future studies are therefore warranted to specifically measure infants exposure to these flame retardants from intimate contact with these products and to determine if there are any associated health concerns. Read the full study.

Abstract


A flame retardant used in children’s sleepwear, tris-(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl)phosphate (Fyrol FR2) is a mutagen in the Salmonella-mammalian tissue homogenate test after it has been activated by mouse or rat liver homogenate. The expected enzymatic hydrolysis product, 1,3-dichloro-2-propanol, is similarly a mutagen after activation by liver homogenate. A proposed metabolite of the flame retardant, 1,3-dichloro-2-propanone, is a potent mutagen in the absence of such activation. A flame retardant with similar structure, tris-(2,3-dibromopropyl)phosphate (tris-BP), was shown previously to be a mutagen, to cause sterility in animals, to be a carcinogen, and to be absorbed through human skin. These and other flame retardants have characteristic nuclear magnetic resonance spectra that can be used to determine which flame retardant is present in commercially purchased sleepwear. Sleepwear treated with tris-BP, Fyrol FR2, and other chemical additives was being sold in late 1977. Read the full study

Abstract


The flame retardant, tris(2,3-dibromopropyl)phosphate (tris-BP), which is a mutagen and causes cancer and sterility in animals is absorbed from fabric by people. 2,3-Dibromopropanol, a metabolite of tris-BP and a mutagen itself, has been found in the urine samples of ten children who were wearing or who had worn tris-BP-treated sleepwear. Eight of these children were wearing well-washed sleepwearand the possibility of absorption of tris-BP from well-washed sleepwear is discussed. 2,3-Dibromopropanol was not found in the urines of one child and one adult who had never worn tris-BP-treated garments. Read the full study

Abstract


Thousands of chemicals to which humans have been exposed have been introduced into the environment without adequate toxicological testing. The toxicological and biological properties of food additives and drugs have been monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and now pesticides are monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but most other new substances are tested only superficially. Some chemical flame retardants provide a good example of a technological innovation where adverse environmental effects may outweigh some of the benefits. Recent federal regulations, requiring that children’s sleepwear, mattresses, mattress pads, and carpets meet flammability standards, are said to have resulted in a decrease in the number of burn injuries and deaths. As a result, flammability standards to cover all children’s and adults’ clothing, tents, sleeping bags, curtains, and upholstered furniture are being considered. Currently about 300 million pounds of flame-retardant chemicals are being produced mainly for use in fabrics, plastics, and carpets. Those added directly to textiles are often present in amounts as high as 10 to 20 percent of the weight of the fabric. Further extension of the scope of the standards may increase their production and usage even more. Read the full study

Electronics Standards

The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) sets worldwide standards for electronics. Proposed amendments to standards requiring the cases around computers and televisions to resist a candle flame have no valid fire safety rationale and lead to the addition of toxic or inadequately tested flame retardant chemicals to the plastic case.

Whitepapers

Abstract


Proposed amendments to International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Standards 60065 and 62368 for candle resistance of television enclosures have no valid fire safety rationale as well as a large potential to cause serious harm to human health and the global environment. This report contains information about the lack of fire safety benefit of new candle flame requirements for televisions as well as the serious adverse health and environmental impacts of the chemicals that are likely to be used to meet such requirements. It should be read as a supplement to our previous paper, “The Case against Candle Resistant Electronics.” Read the full whitepaper

Abstract


Proposed candle flammability standards from the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), CENELEC, Underwriters Laboratory (UL), and Canadian Standards Association (CSA) would bring hundreds of thousands of tons3 of potentially toxic fire retardant chemicals into homes, schools, hospitals, businesses—wherever electronic equipment is found. These candle flame resistance requirements threaten human health, the global environment, and the responsible recycling of electronics equipment. Current fire, health, and environmental data must be obtained and evaluated before the candle flame resistance requirements in Clause 21 Amendment 2 to IEC 60065; and Subclause 4.7.1 of Amendment 1 to IEC 60950; as well as similar CENELEC standards and amendments to UL60950-1 in the U. S. and the C22.2 no. 60950-1, 2nd edition in Canada are promulgated. Read the full whitepaper.

Articles

Abstract


A series of proposed international information and communication technology (ICT), video, and audio equipment safety standards, under development since 2002 and believed certain to be implemented, was voted down in 2008. These proposed standards introduced an “accidentally caused candle flame ignition” provision, requiring that plastic enclosures of consumer electronics products resist external ignition from a small open flame.
Household electronics products are currently well protected against potential ignition from internal heat sources. The candle flame ignition requirement would have, if approved, resulted in the addition of hundreds of millions of pounds of unneeded fire retardant chemicals to consumer electronics each year, based on a poorly documented fire safety risk. Read the full article.

Furniture

babycouch-crop

An outdated California standard led to the use of harmful and potentially harmful flame retardant chemicals in furniture and baby product foam across North America. A new standard took effect January 1, 2014. TB117-2013 allows for fire-safe, flame retardant free furniture and baby products.

Peer-Reviewed Papers

Abstract


California’s furniture flammability standard Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) is believed to be a major driver of chemical flame retardant (FR) use in residential furniture in the United States. With the phase-out of the polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) FR mixture PentaBDE in 2005, alternative FRs are increasingly being used to meet TB 117; however, it was unclear which chemicals were being used and how frequently. To address this data gap, we collected and analyzed 102 samples of polyurethane foam from residential couches purchased in the United States from 1985 to 2010. Overall, we detected chemical flame retardants in 85% of the couches. In samples purchased prior to 2005 (n = 41) PBDEs associated with the PentaBDE mixture including BDEs 47, 99, and 100 (PentaBDE) were the most common FR detected (39%), followed by tris(1,3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate (TDCPP; 24%), which is a suspected human carcinogen. In samples purchased in 2005 or later (n = 61) the most common FRs detected were TDCPP (52%) and components associated with the Firemaster550 (FM 550) mixture (18%). Since the 2005 phase-out of PentaBDE, the use of TDCPP increased significantly. In addition, a mixture of nonhalogenated organophosphate FRs that included triphenyl phosphate (TPP), tris(4-butylphenyl) phosphate (TBPP), and a mix of butylphenyl phosphate isomers were observed in 13% of the couch samples purchased in 2005 or later. Overall the prevalence of flame retardants (and PentaBDE) was higher in couches bought in California compared to elsewhere, although the difference was not quite significant (p = 0.054 for PentaBDE). The difference was greater before 2005 than after, suggesting that TB 117 is becoming a de facto standard across the U.S. We determined that the presence of a TB 117 label did predict the presence of a FR; however, lack of a label did not predict the absence of a flame retardant. Following the PentaBDE phase out, we also found an increased number of flame retardants on the market. Given these results, and the potential for human exposure to FRs, health studies should be conducted on the types of FRs identified here. Read the full study.

Abstract


The extensive use of chemical flame retardants to meet the California Furniture Flammability Standard Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117)provides an example of the need for consideration of environmental impacts of fire safety interventions before they are widely implemented. Flame retardants are currently being used in products with high levels of human exposure without adequate toxicological testing. For example, flame retardants commercially used to meet TB117 have been found to have negative consequences in the environment. And notably, the TB117 standard has not been shown to have a measurable fire safety benefit. Both the unintended adverse environmental and health impacts and the lack of fire safety benefits of California TB117 are discussed in detail. Read the full study.

Health & Environment

Flame retardant chemicals are added to many different consumer products and are associated with a variety of serious health concerns, including disruption of hormones, developmental and reproductive problems. These chemicals do not stay in products- they are found in the blood, fat and breast milk of nearly all people tested, as well being ubiquitous in the worldwide environment and wildlife.

Peer-Reviewed Papers

Abstract


Since the 1970s, an increasing number of regulations have expanded the use of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants. Many of these chemicals are now recognized as global contaminants and are associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans, including endocrine and thyroid disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function. Some flame retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been banned or voluntarily phased out by manufacturers because of their environmental persistence and toxicity, only to be replaced by other organohalogens of unknown toxicity. Despite restrictions on further production in some countries, consumer products previously treated with banned retardants are still in use and continue to release toxic chemicals into the environment, and the worldwide use of organohalogen retardants continues to increase. This paper examines major uses and known toxic effects of commonly-used organohalogen flame retardants, replacements for those that have been phased out, their combustion by-products, and their effectiveness at reducing fire hazard. Policy and other solutions to maintain fire safety while reducing toxicity are suggested. The major conclusions are: (1) Flammability regulations can cause greater adverse environmental and health impacts than fire safety benefits. (2) The current options for end-of-life disposal of products treated with organohalogens retardants are problematic. (3) Life-cycle analyses evaluating benefits and risks should consider the health and environmental effects of the chemicals, as well as their fire safety impacts. (4) Most fire deaths and most fire injuries result from inhaling carbon monoxide, irritant gases, and soot. The incorporation of organohalogens can increase the yield of these toxic by-products during combustion. (5) Fire-safe cigarettes, fire-safe candles, child-resistant lighters, sprinklers, and smoke detectors can prevent fires without the potential adverse effects of flame retardant chemicals. (6) Alternatives to organohalogen flame retardant chemicals include using less flammable materials, design changes, and safer chemicals. To date, before evaluating their health and environmental impacts, many flame retardant chemicals have been produced and used, resulting in high levels of human exposure. As a growing literature continues to find adverse impacts from such chemicals, a more systematic approach to their regulation is needed. Before implementing new flammability standards, decision-makers should evaluate the potential fire safety benefit versus the health and environmental impacts of the chemicals, materials, or technologies likely to be used to meet the standard. Reducing the use of toxic or untested flame retardant chemicals in consumer products can protect human and animal health and the global environment without compromising fire safety.Read the full study.

Editorials

Abstract


My beloved cat, Midnight, died a few days ago — possibly because of toxic chemicals in my furniture. In two years with hyperthyroid disease, Midnight went from a plump 14 pounds to a skeletal five. A year ago, a veterinary epidemiologist found that Midnight’s blood contained among the highest levels of PBDEs documented in animal research. That’s when I learned that the chemicals in my cat came from my couch. And that my furniture is uniquely toxic because I live in California. Read the full article.

Science and Policy

To establish sound, evidence-based chemicals policies, key stakeholders need to be informed and connected with each other: the scientists who study chemicals; health and environmental organizations involved in advocacy; the product manufacturers that use the chemicals; policy makers; and the public. We communicate with these groups by publishing peer-reviewed research papers, as well as via whitepapers, editorials, articles and popular media.

Peer-Reviewed Papers

Abstract


To bridge the gap between science and policy, future scientists should receive training that incorporates policy implications into the design, analysis, and communication of research. We present a student Science and Policy course for undergraduate science majors piloted at the University of California, Berkeley in the summer of 2011. During this program, pairs of students undertake research projects while receiving instruction in both research methods and science translation. In addition to completing short-term research projects, the students produce materials designed to communicate their results to decision makers and the public. This article provides a detailed description of this course’s organization and structure and a preliminary evaluation. Suggestions for others interested in designing (and conducting educational research on) a similar interdisciplinary program are provided. Read the full article.

Editorials

Abstract


Thirty years ago, as a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, I published papers in Science magazine calling for the ban of brominated and chlorinated Tris, two flame retardants used in children’s sleepwear. Both forms of Tris caused mutations in DNA, and leached from pajamas into children’s bodies. In 1977, when brominated Tris was found to be a potent carcinogen, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned Tris from children’s sleepwear.
So I was astonished to learn recently that the same chlorinated Tris that I helped eliminate from children’s pajamas is being used today in the foam inside furniture sold in California to meet standards there for fire retardancy, and that the state is considering similar standards for pillows, comforters and mattress pads. The federal safety commission, following California’s lead, is working to set a national standard for fire-retardant furniture. Read the full article.