26 August, 2014. Supposedly useful chemicals that are said to protect against fire may be devils in disguise, or, rather, chemical brain drainers in disguise. From the 1970s, these chemicals have been used in widely different products, from construction materials and furniture to electronics enclosures. The so-called flame retardants were said to prevent fires and to save lives, a claim that Chicago Tribune reporters found “misleading”. Because the compounds are highly stable, once released to the environment or absorbed into the human body, they can remain for years. A mother shares the chemicals with the fetus, she also passes them on via human milk, and the child will accumulate larger blood concentrations of the compounds than the mother.
Early-life exposure to bromine-containing flame retardants called PBDEs has been linked to intellectual deficits in children in California and New York (see also “Only one chance”, chapter 6). This month, a new study from Cincinnati, Ohio, adds to the evidence that these substances retard brain development. The researchers examined over 300 children born between 2003 and 2006 and whose mothers had provided blood samples during pregnancy. The common penta-BDE, BDE-47, was detectable in all samples. After adjustment for other factors, a 10-fold increase in BDE-47 exposure was associated with a 4.5-point reduction in IQ. Earlier this year, the PBDEs were listed as documented developmental neurotoxicants.
Evidence of toxicity due to flame retardants has been building since the 1980s. The European Union in 2004 banned some of them (penta- and octa-BDE). While no federal regulation has been enacted in the US, a total of 15 states have passed new laws limiting the use of flame retardants, most of them in regard to penta-, octa- and deca-BDE. But that is not the end of the story.
Other flame retardants are now marketed as substitutes, including related brominated compounds, chlorinated Tris compounds (TCEP, TCDPP, TCPP), short-chain chlorinated paraffins, and antimony trioxide. Some of them are already known to be toxic, even carcinogenic, but almost no evidence is available whether these alternatives can harm brain development.
California’s upholstered furniture flammability standard, TB-117, has been revised and can now be met by furniture manufacturers without chemicals. But the standard does not prevent their use, and policies are still needed to restrict harmful flame retardants and to prevent new ones from taking their place. This is true also in the EU. A candle flame ignition requirement for television housings was first passed in 2009 (CENELEC EN 60065), but it was removed in 2013 by majority vote among the member states. Now, flame retardant supporters continue their push for “candle standards” for enclosures around computers and other electronics. As the only country, the UK retains an open flame standard that requires the use of chemical retardants in home furniture.
Chemical industry viewpoints are marketed by lobbying through action groups with innocent names like the North American Flame Retardant Alliance and the Fire Safety Platform. Their aim is to protect a growing world market, currently at 4 billion pounds (1.8 million tons). While legislative action has been slow, the market has also taken note. Thus, after bans in some US states, Walmart, a major retailer, announced its own policy, thereby triggering the US chemical industry to stop PBDE production. Also in the US, the largest health management organization. Kaiser Permanente recently decided to purchase furniture free of flame retardants.
These developments leave room for some optimism. But the sad fact is that unnecessary chemicals were marketed for protection of health in the 1970s, though without proper safeguards, and when a whole generation of children had been exposed to the chemicals, science eventually documented that the chemicals damaged the children’s brains. In response, chemical industries are eager to market substitutes, again without proper safeguards. Maybe they have retardant chemicals not only on their brains, but also in their brains.