Environment
12:27 pm
Tue April 2, 2013

EPA Will Assess Some Flame Retardant Chemicals for Potential Human Health Effects

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to assess 23 commonly-used chemicals—including 20 flame retardants—for their potential effects on human health and the environment.

The study will also include an analysis of how several of those flame retardants behave in the environment…like whether they bioaccumulate in humans or can be absorbed into the body with a certain type of exposure.

Flame retardant chemicals are nothing new in manufactured goods like couches. But recently there’s been more evidence that they could pose a health problem. Last year, I reported on a study that tested couches across the country, and found suspected carcinogens in 41 percent of them.

The study was led by researchers at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. They analyzed 102 samples from couches across the country and found that 41 percent included chlorinated Tris, a chemical that was banned from children’s pajamas in 1977 because it’s a suspected human carcinogen. Seventeen percent included pentaBDE, which was voluntarily phased out by many companies in 2004 and banned around the world (but not in the United States). PentaBDE bioaccumulates in tissue and can be toxic.

Chlorinated Tris is on the EPA’s list for assessment; PentaBDE is not, but the closely related 1,2 bis(Penetabromophenyl) ethane (DBDPE) is.

The EPA has also identified 50 flame retardants that seem unlikely to have any effect on human health, and will explore the possibility of substituting those chemicals for other, more toxic ones.

Elizabeth Crowe of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation called the assessment “overdue, but welcome.” In an email she wrote:

Research has shown that the chemicals are often ineffective at preventing fire, but persist in the environment and can cause harm when they get into our bodies via dust…

One important part of the EPA's assessment will be its consideration of “substitutes” for the most toxic flame retardants.  Oftentimes companies don't want to disclose their product information and that makes it difficult to know whether the substitutes are really safer; and sometimes there may not be need for a substitute at all.

For the past few years, KEF and other groups have called for a re-haul of the Toxic Substances Control Act, arguing that it’s outdated and there’s increasing evidence that certain chemicals are linked to diseases like cancer, autism and learning disabilities.