Consumer group warns against common flame retardant

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Story highlights

  • Some studies have linked organohalogen chemicals to cancer, hormone disruption and infertility
  • The guidance, which is forerunner to a possible regulation, is not legally binding

(CNN)The Consumer Product Safety Commission published guidance in the Federal Registry Thursday that serves as a warning for consumers not to buy products containing a commonly-used class of toxic flame retardants, called organohalogen chemicals.

They have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, infertility, and neurological deficits in children, according to the commission's guidance document. Some studies, cited in this commission report, substantiate these claims.
The chemicals are especially hazardous to pregnant women and young children, studies find.
    The commission, a government agency charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death associated with the use of thousands of consumer products, also recommended manufacturers stop using these chemicals in products where they are currently found. These include upholstered furniture, mattresses, electronic cases, and children's toys.
    Commissioner Bob Adler said there's a "whole host of dangers" these organohalogen flame retardants carry.
    "These chemicals are added to products to keep them from catching fire in smolder or open flame situations," said Adler.
    He acknowledged, though, that the commission has not yet done careful and exhaustive studies of every single chemical within this class, but "every (chemical) that we've done careful and exhaustive study of has proven to be toxic -- and hazardously toxic -- to consumers."
    The commission had a "big debate" about this, he said, the evidence of which is contained in a May briefing document.
    Essentially, the commission's technical staff said the organohalogens should not be treated as a single class under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act due to their differing physicochemical properties and toxicological profiles, and recommended against advancing a rule.
    Ultimately, though, the commission voted to publish the guidance and begin the process of developing a new regulation with regard to the chemicals.
    Bryan Goodman, a spokesperson for the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, said because these regulations help promote public safety "there is a need for international, national and regional code consistency." He said it is fortunate the guidance is non-binding and the new action merely constitutes "a recommendation." He added that the association will communicate to members that this is guidance and does not need to be followed.
    "The guidance needs to be evaluated based on the state of the science and the need to fully consider all aspects of product safety, including fire safety," wrote Goodman. He added businesses should feel confident in continued use of these chemicals in certain applications "consistent with existing national and international regulations," while the commission conducts further analysis.
    Adler acknowledged the limits of the guidance, and said binding regulation is "going to take years, by almost all accounts," because of the various rules that must be followed.

    Possible challenges

    As part of the "long and drawn out process," he said, the commission needs to "convene a body of outside experts that are recommended to us by the National Academy of Sciences to look into the exact scope of the hazards and to help us fill in the data gaps through an accepted protocol."
    "In the meantime, consumers need to be alerted and the market itself needs to be alerted to the commission's concerns about these products," said Adler.
    And, while that's happening, the commission could face both legal and political challenges, he said.
    "We could be sued by the industry, they could go to the hill and have prohibitions on commission actions being passed," said Adler. "We could have a group of commissioners appointed to the agency that don't want to proceed along those lines."
    No matter what may come in the days ahead, issuing the guidance is worth it if it protects consumers, said Adler.
    "Dangerous chemicals present a much more serious concern than fire in the home," said Adler. It's not that there isn't great concern about home fires, he added. "The issue is: Do these chemicals give us the answer to this risk? And my answer is they do not."
    Others agree that organohalogens are too dangerous for home use. The groups that petitioned the commission to begin developing regulations for organohalogens include the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Women's Association, and the International Association of Fire Fighters.
    "What our staff has told us -- and what a number of academic experts and a number of health experts said -- is that the concentration of these flame retardants in things like furniture and children's products are not great enough to do very much to protect us from fire or smoldering hazards," said Adler.
    Too small maybe to prevent fires, but still large enough to cause health hazards, he said.
    Fire safety, though, is not just about chemistry, said Goodman. Product designers typically take a multi-layered approach, he said. "There is no one, single fire safety tool."
    And not all products are the same, said Goodman. Some pose a greater fire risk than others.
    "It is critical that manufacturers have access to safe and effective flame retardants in the future and the flexibility to utilize the fire safety tools that best meet their needs," said Goodman.

    Dollars and sense?

    Adler said the commission has been told "there are a host of other flame retardants" that work but don't have issues of toxicity.
    "They're more expensive," he said.
    Goodman acknowledged that "flame retardants include a broad range of substances."
    That said, flame retardants "are not readily interchangeable," said Goodman. Different materials have very different physical and chemical properties. "Similarly, end-use performance requirements, including certification to national standards, must be considered when choosing a flame retardant," said Goodman. A manufacturer cannot simply swap one chemical for another without "significant time and cost devoted to formulation, performance testing, certification," and other factors.
    Adler said the proposed rule will level the playing field and "everybody will have the same cost if they feel the need to add flame retardants."
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    No one will be able to put a dangerous but cheap flame retardant in a product to save costs while "those who are being more conscientious are penalized in the marketplace," said Adler.
    Consumers -- and the government -- have always had to weigh the need for fire safety against chemical safety, said Adler. "In this situation it's not even a close call as far as I'm concerned."