CPSC Warns Consumers: Avoid Toxic Flame Retardants

Today’s Federal Register contains a notice from the Consumer Product Safety Commission that everyone  should read. In two pages, the CPSC warns consumers that dozens of related chemicals, called organohalogens (including the brominated flame retardants, BFRs), are too toxic to be used in baby products and home furnishings any longer.

These toxic and highly persistent chemicals have been foisted on the public for decades by chemical manufacturers as flame retardants, although their ability to actually increase fire safety is marginal at best. Unfortunately, while this class of chemicals lacks fire safety ability, it is increasingly proving its ability to cause health harms to people and wildlife, something the chemical industry continues to deny.

CPSC’s public warning notice recommends that manufacturers, importers and retailers stop using or selling products containing those flame retardants.

The consumer product categories discussed in the warning notice are:

  • Children’s toys and child care articles;
  • Mattresses and mattress pads;
  • Upholstered household furniture (the CPSC does not have jurisdiction over office furniture, but the flame retardants aren’t any safer in those);
  • The outer plastic casings for electronics (as opposed to the inner workings on electronics).

Here is part of what CPSC says about the recognized health risks posed by these toxic flame retardants:

“The known adverse health effects of these chemicals to consumers include: reproductive impairment (e.g., abnormal gonadal development, reduced number of ovarian follicles, reduced sperm count, increased time to pregnancy); neurological impacts (e.g., decreased IQ in children, impaired memory, learning deficits, altered motor behavior, hyperactivity); endocrine disruption and interference with thyroid hormone action (potentially contributing to diabetes and obesity); genotoxicity; cancer; and immune disorders. These chemicals have a disproportionately negative health effect on vulnerable populations, including children.”

Wow. OK, so those toxic chemicals in our consumer products threaten the healthy development of our children, but will we actually be exposed to them? Here’s what the CPSC says:

“Scientific evidence to date demonstrate that OFRs [the flame retardants], when used in non-polymeric, additive form, migrate from consumer products, leading to widespread human exposure to mixtures of these chemicals. Exposures to OFRs occur because of the semi-volatile property of these chemicals that results in migration of the chemicals and the chemicals’ absorption into household dust and other surfaces where they persist in the environment. At this time, there is no known way to direct consumers to use affected products in a manner that would guarantee reducing exposures to the American population to an acceptable level. Numerous peer-reviewed, published studies show that the vast majority of consumers have measurable quantities of OFRs in their blood.”

The Safety Commission’s notice comes one week after it voted (3-2) to proceed with a rulemaking to ban the use of the entire class of organohalogen flame retardants (in their additive, non-polymeric form) from all four product categories. Because that rulemaking will likely take years to complete, the Commission resolved to issue a public warning immediately and to request that manufacturers of the products “eliminate the use of such chemicals in these products.” The Commission’s vote was in response to a petition filed in 2015 by a collection of consumer, health, labor and environmental groups including Consumer Federation of America, Earthjustice, International Association of Firefighters, Learning Disabilities Association, and Green Science Policy Institute. The groups petitioned the CPCSC to declare the four categories of consumer products containing the toxic flame retardants to be “banned hazardous substances” under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. The Commission held two sets of hearings on the petition, in December 2015 and earlier this month. NRDC testified in support of the petition at both hearings (see Sass and Rosenberg testimonies), along with dozens of other experts and concerned Americans.

One of the most important aspects of the petition, and the Commission’s actions are its treatment of the organohalogen flame retardants as a class. The Commission recognized the overwhelming evidence that for those members of the class of flame retardants for which information is available, they are associated with a range of adverse health effects and that they should be treated (and banned) as a class, rather than treated individually—an approach that would likely ensure endless substitution of one flame retardant for another, with no meaningful health protection for the public.

Regulating chemicals as a class has plenty of precedent—for PCBs, PFCs, CFCs, asbestos, dioxins and others, but the chemical manufacturers tried to dissuade the CPSC by suggesting that by banning the flame retardants as a class it was striking out into uncharted territory. The Commission wasn’t buying it (the votes in support of initiating the rulemaking and issuing the notice were 3-2).

But that won’t be the end of the story. A strong attempt to block the Safety Commission’s actions can be expected. Stay tuned for the chemical manufacturers’ reaching deep into their usual bag of tricks: cutting off funding for the Commission via appropriations’ “riders,” legislative attempts to overturn the Commission, and legal challenges in court.

The amount of political pressure that the chemical manufactures bring to bear on government agencies like the CPSC, the EPA and the FDA on a daily basis cannot be overstated. They employ and deploy an army of lobbyists, scientists and consultants-for-hire all for the sole purpose of preventing any action by the government to protect the public from their toxic products, or even to warn them of the dangers they pose.

The three members of the Commission who voted to take action to inform and protect the public from toxic flame retardants—Robert Adler, Marietta Robinson, and Elliott Kaye—deserve recognition and thanks from all consumers who want their families to be protected from toxic chemicals in their homes, and want them out of their bodies. 

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