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April 2017: Sitting on the Lakefront

In this edition:

While visiting friends in Milwaukee this month, I was awed by the beauty and scale of Lake Michigan. A number of people I met enjoy the Great Lakes for recreation, but the Lakes are also critical to the vitality of the region.

Canada and the U.S. recently agreed on a set of Chemicals of Mutual Concern for the water quality of the Great Lakes. The list includes several halogenated flame retardants and highly fluorinat
ed chemicals
. To address these pollutants, the U.S. and Canada will need to support research, monitoring, pollution prevention, and other strategies. However, other contaminants are not addressed with this agreement and represent a growing concern. For instance, read below about increasing levels of organophosphate flame retardants in the Great Lakes.

Our Executive Director Arlene Blum spoke at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in San Francisco this week about the Institute’s successful work with scientists, government, and businesses toward reducing the use of chemicals of concern in the Great Lakes and beyond. Some of our work to reduce harmful flame retardants in furniture was supported by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Proposed cuts to this initiative would reduce or eliminate funding for these kinds of projects, as well as other critical restoration and research. It is important for scientists, non-profits, businesses, and government agencies to continue to work together to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals.

You can learn more about classes of chemicals of concern through our upcoming online events:

  • On April 19, please join us for a free webinar, Highly Fluorinated Chemicals: A Sticky Issue. Learn about highly fluorinated chemicals, or PFASs, from our distinguished speakers, who will reprise the talks they delivered at our February 10 Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond Symposium. Register here!
  • On June 22, we will premiere a series of 4-minute long educational videos about Six Classes of chemicals of concern in building and consumer products and how we can reduce their use and our exposures. Stay tuned for details about our online launch events and in-person watch parties.

We hope you will join us!
Avery Lindeman (Deputy Director) and the Green Science Policy team

Flame Retardants Increasing in the Great Lakes

Researchers estimate more than 63 tonnes of organophosphate flame retardants and plasticizers are present in Lake Michigan alone.

A new study measured levels of organophosphate flame retardants and plastic additives in sediments in three of the Great Lakes. The research team observed increasing deposition of organophosphates in recent years, especially for the flame retardant TCPP (one of three types of “chlorinated tris”).


The use of these chemicals has increased dramatically, with poorly understood consequences for human and ecological health. Organophosphates can be transported large distances and are persistent in sediment. One major use of TCPP is in foam plastic building insulation. We continue to ­­­­work to update building codes to allow for reduced use of flame retardants in insulation where they are not essential for fire safety.

Common flame retardants impact kids’ emotional well-being

A recent study published in Environmental Health underscores the positive impact of improving flammability standards so flame retardants are not needed. Researchers used silicone wristbands to assess exposures of preschool students to flame retardants and examined relationships between exposure levels and emotional and social behaviors.


The new study found that:

  • Children with higher exposures to polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants were assessed to be less assertive. PBDEs have been phased-out in North America, and certain PBDEs have been globally banned under the Stockholm Convention, due to evidence of harm.
  • Children with higher exposures to organophosphate flame retardants – common replacements for PBDEs – show less responsible behavior and were assessed by their teachers to have behavioral problems including aggression, defiance, hyperactivity, inattention, and bullying.

Do flame retardants provide a big enough benefit to justify their health and ecological hazards? We have found that in many cases, such as upholstered furniture, electronics enclosures, and certain uses of building insulation, fire safety can be achieved without the use of flame retardants.

You can minimize your and your family’s exposures to flame retardants.

Highly fluorinated chemicals taken up by organs

Common substitutes for phased-out compounds found at higher levels in certain organs

Researchers used a new analytical technique to track the distribution of highly fluorinated chemicals (or PFASs) in mice organs and tissues. The scientists found these potentially toxic chemicals in the liver, stomach, leg bone, lungs, kidney, heart, skin, muscle, brain and other organs of mice after injection.


In contrast to “long-chain” PFASs like PFOA, which have been phased out in the U.S. due to health concerns, newer “short-chain” PFASs are sometimes considered safer because they are more rapidly excreted from the body. However, this study found short-chain PFASs in all body organs studied, often at higher concentrations than the long-chain chemicals. This paper supports previous work from a Spanish research group that found short-chain PFASs in a variety of human organs.

PFASs are used in (or in the production of) many consumer products because of their water-repellent, stain-resistant, and non-stick properties. These chemicals persist in the environment indefinitely, and exposure to PFOA (or “C8”), which has been studied extensively, is linked to a wide range of human health problems. This new research is just one more reason that product manufacturers should strive to avoid the entire class of highly fluorinated chemicals, except when they are truly necessary.

Policy Progress on Highly Fluorinated Chemicals

Following on from our recent collaborative paper finding fluorinated chemicals in one third of fast food packaging tested, we’re delighted to see that Environmental Working Group and Clean Water Action are co-sponsoring California Assembly Bill 958. This legislation, introduced by San Francisco Assembly Member Phil Ting, would be the first in the nation to ban the whole class of highly fluorinated chemicals (also known as PFASs or PFCs) in fast food packaging and takeout containers.

At the same time, in Washington State, Toxic Free Future has petitioned the Department of Ecology to add some highly fluorinated chemicals to the list of Chemicals of High Concern under the state’s landmark Children’s Safe Products Act. If adopted, the use of these chemicals in children’s products would need to be disclosed. The Department of Ecology is expected to make a decision on the petition soon.


We appreciate our NGO colleagues’ leadership in reducing the use of this persistent and potentially toxic class of chemicals. To learn more, please register for our April 19 webinar or check out our Myths versus Facts flyer.

Welcome to Raphael Tingley, Administrative Specialist

The Green Science Policy team welcomes Raphael Tingley as our new Administrative Specialist. He will be supporting Institute projects, events, operations, and communications.

Raphael graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2015, with a BA in Politics and a minor in History. Before joining the Institute, Raphael worked in marketing and backpacked throughout Central and Southern Europe. Raphael looks forward to advocating for initiatives for a cleaner and healthier planet. We are very happy to have him join our team.

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