The Science of Sustainability

Fire Safety without Harm

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Last week, scientists and regulators from more than 20 countries gathered in San Francisco to discuss the latest research on flame retardants. The conference lasted four days, but the theme of the meeting was clear from just a few talks: Do we need toxic chemicals to achieve fire safety?

For the past decade, scientists have voiced increasing concern about the potential health and environmental risks of these chemicals, which show up—and leach from—a growing number of consumer products. By now, most California consumers probably know that flame retardants permeate the foam in their couches and chairs, along with a surprising array of baby products. (On Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle noted that at least some nap maps sold in the state will no longer contain flame retardants.)

As I reported yesterday in a story for the Washington Post, mounting evidence suggests that these brominated chemicals pose risks to human health. Californians carry among the highest levels of flame retardants in the world, which researchers attribute to a 70s-era flammability standard that requires foam products to resist an open flame for 12 seconds. Manufacturers typically used flame retardants to comply and many tailored their products to California’s standard—and considerable market share—to avoid double inventories.

Gov. Jerry Brown, concerned about the risks the chemicals pose to human health, called on the state agency in charge of flammability standards to find a way to ensure fire safety without the need for toxic flame retardants. In March, the agency held a public hearing on its new standard, revised to do just that. The new regulations go into effect July 2014.

Since 2011, when I started writing about flame retardants, I’ve been struck by how the researchers studying these chemicals talk about their findings. Scientists tend to talk about their results in terms of what they don’t know and what new questions their studies raise. (All exceptions duly noted.) And those studying flame retardants do discuss their findings with all the usual caveats. But they also do something else. They tell me, "We don’t like what we’re seeing."

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Heather Stapleton, a flame retardant expert at Duke University who’s pioneered methods to correlate levels of dust on people’s hands with levels found in their blood or urine. With two small children, a four-year-old son and a daughter who will be two next month, Stapleton said she thinks very carefully “as a mother and scientist” about the products she buys and washes her children’s hands frequently to reduce exposure.

She’s particularly worried about people using hand-me-down nursing pillows and other baby products that likely exude more flame retardants as they age. “No one to my knowledge is examining infants’ exposure to flame retardants from these small items,” she said. “They’re small but an infant spends a lot of contact time with them.” What’s more, babies are likely to go from sleep positioner to a car seat to a changing table, spending the better part of a day in contact with products that could be leaching the chemicals.

Last week at the flame retardant conference, researchers talked about the global reach of these chemicals, now detected in trees, sludge, wildlife and people around the world. They listed the wide range of health effects associated with the well-studied brominated flame retardants—including endocrine disruption and developmental, neurological and reproductive defects—and emphasized that the effects have been found in both animals and humans. They also reported worrying early results on new formulations like tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), which is showing up in human breast milk and maternal cord blood samples.

Historically, TBBPA was added mostly to electronics and circuit boards in a “reactive mode,” which means it’s unlikely to leach from the product. But as Linda Birnbaum pointed out at the meeting, it’s now being used as a replacement for banned or discontinued brominated flame retardants in an “additive mode”—so it can offgas, migrate from the product into the air. “Which means more is going to get into the environment,” Birnbaum said, “which means more is going to get into people and wildlife.”

Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, reported that a two-year study of TBBPA in rats and mice found a dose-related increase in aggressive uterine tumors in the female rats—“these are highly malignant tumors that metastasize to many different sites,” she told the crowd—as well as liver tumors in male and female mice. These results suggest, she said, that TBBPA is a “two species carcinogen” that warrants closer study.

A few months ago, Birnbaum told me that she used to think flame retardants were providing fire safety but now isn't so sure. She allows there may be applications that warrant them, like airplanes, but even then, she said, “If we think flame retardants are going to be helpful, why not use them in a reactive mode, so they don’t easily escape into the environment?”

A decade ago, after seeing data showing rising levels of flame retardants in people along with animal evidence linking neurological effects to exposure early in life, Birnbaum called attention to the issue with a paper called "Brominated Flame Retardants: Cause for Concern?"

Now, she said, “everything that is being seen in people when you look—and until recently, no one looked—is consistent with things that we’ve seen in animal models.”

The weight of the evidence inspired Birnbaum to write another paper. “I changed the question mark,” she said, “to an exclamation point.”

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Category: Biology, Blog, Chemistry, Environment, Health

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Liza Gross

About the Author ()

Liza Gross, a freelance science writer and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, channeled an early love of wildlife into a lifelong exploration of the numerous ways diverse species, including humans, interact in the natural world. She writes mostly about wildlife, conservation, and environmental health. Her stories reflect a deep curiosity about natural and social interactions and often highlight evolutionary relationships that remind humans of their place in, and responsibility to conserve, nature. Her article "Don't Jump!" published in Slate, won an ASJA award in the op-ed category. She's a visiting scholar at NYU, a 2013 recipient of NYU Reporting Award funding and a Dennis Hunt health journalism fellow. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.