January 2016: Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond


Happy New Year! Many thanks to our supporters for your generous end-of-year gifts, a big help for our work to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in consumer products.

An outstanding article about fluorinated chemicals, The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare, was the front page story in the January 10th New York Times Magazine. Finally, the egregious story of the harm of this most persistent class of chemicals is reaching major audiences. It’s gratifying to see our Madrid Statement referenced in the article. You can learn more about fluorinated chemicals and this dramatic story below.

We hope you will join us for our annual Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond meeting on Friday, February 12 at UC Berkeley. You can register here.

Furniture and baby products without flame retardants are now available thanks to California’s updated standards, butmillions of pounds of unnecessary flame retardants are still used in building insulation, electronics cases, and more. Our mission to decrease the use of toxics is going well at the Green Science Policy Institute. Sara Petty, a physics professor, has joined our team to lead our work on the responsible disposal of flame-retarded foam and plastic and to help with fire testing design.

In 2016, we look forward to continuing collaborations with our government, business, academic and NGO colleagues to meet the Six Classes Challenge to reduce by 50% the use of the most harmful classes of toxic chemicals in consumer products for a healthier world.

We hope to see many of you at the Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond on Friday, February 12 in Berkeley.

Happy 2016,
Arlene and the Green Science Policy Team

Register Now: The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond

You are invited to join contributors from academia, industry, government, and NGOs to learn about reducing the use of harmful chemicals in everyday products.

Our list of distinguished speakers includes:

  • John Warner, known as a “father of green chemistry”
  • Miriam Diamond, visionary scientist on reducing toxics
  • Justin Paddock, the chief of the Bureau that sets California fire safety standards
  • Meredith Williams, who heads California’s Safer Consumer Products Program
  • Gina Ciganik, a leader in healthier affordable housing

The day’s agenda with speakers and topics is here.

This day-long symposium will be held on Friday, February 12, 2016, at 150 University Hall, UC Berkeley (2199 Addison Street, Berkeley, California). Register now, or click here to learn more.

First the fox designs the henhouse, then gets hired to guard it

Rob Bilott “was a corporate defense lawyer for 8 years. But then he took on an environmental suit that would upend his entire career – and expose a brazen, decades-long history of chemical pollution.” The New York Times Magazine lays out the legal, regulatory, and ethical issues around the production of fluorinated chemicals. Now, the chemical producer’s behavior and the resulting harm are being revealed.

The Times reports, “last May, 200 scientists…signed theMadrid Statement, which expresses concern about the production of all fluorochemicals, or PFASs, including those that have replaced PFOA.” Fluorochemicals are likely endocrine-disruptors chemicals that can “interfere with human reproduction and metabolism and cause cancer, thyroid problems and nervous-system disorders.”

Mr. Bilott says “the thought that DuPont could get away with this for this long, that they could keep making a profit off it, then get the agreement of the governmental agencies to slowly phase it out, only to replace it with an alternative with unknown human effects – we told the agencies about this in 2001, and they’ve essentially done nothing. That’s 14 years of this stuff continuing to be used, continuing to be in the drinking water all over the country. DuPont just quietly switches over to the next substance. And in the meantime, they fight everyone who has been injured by it.”

Poisoning the Well: Toxic Fire Fighting Foam has Contaminated US Drinking Water

Fire fighting foam can effectively put out a jet fuel fire, so it is used by airports and military bases across the country. However, it usually contains harmful highly fluorinated chemicals (also known as perfluorinated chemicals, PFASs, or PFCs) which end up in soil and groundwater. Sharon Lerner’s recent article in the Intercept contains an excellent interactive map showing the relationship between high levels of fluorinated chemicals in water supplies and the location of military fire or crash training sites.

These chemicals have been tied to a range of health problems including liver malfunction, low birth weight, hormonal changes, thyroid problems and several types of cancer. They can build up in the human body and persist in the environment for geologic time.

In 2009 the EPA advised that short-term exposure to PFOA, often used in fire fighting foam, should be limited to 0.4ppb, and many have argued that the limit should be much lower. However, families in affected communities may have been exposed through drinking water for years. At one Air Force base, PFOA levels as high as 250,000ppb were recorded in groundwater.

Fluorinated chemicals are not regulated. The US military requires them in fire fighting foam, and the Air Force has said it will “address the contamination on a case-by-case basis.” A big question is whether alternative materials can be used for practice here in the U.S. as is done in Germany.

Big Ideas – Then and Now

In the 1800s, cholera claimed millions of lives worldwide. An outbreak in London’s Soho district killed more than 10,000 people. Then, in 1854, Dr. John Snow pinpointed the cause of the Soho outbreak. His groundbreaking methods and controversial ideas had a big impact.

In 1999, Dr. Kim Harley and colleagues began a fourteen years-long study of a large group of women and children to learn about the long-term effects of exposure to environmental contaminants. The study was big; it was long; and its findings deserve our attention. Now, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering the Big Idea Petition.

>What is the Big Idea? And how are all of these BIG ideas connected? Read about it in our blog.