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    Scientists Warn Against The Fire Retardant Chemicals Found In Household Items

    Today 145 scientists from 22 countries released a statement (called the 'San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame Retardants') expressing concern about the use of flame retardant materials found commonly in many consumer products. The statement was published in the Environmental Health Perspectives. The international treaty, 'The Stockholm Convention' has already recommended three commonly used brominated flame retardants for global elimination. A fourth brominated flame retardant is under consideration for possible elimination.

    Scientists are saying that many of these fire retardant compounds lack adequate toxicity information but the available data raises serious questions about their safety. And despite such concerns the flame retardant chemicals are ubiquitous. Here're some examples of where they may be found in and around any household: foam materials in furniture and auto upholstery, plastic components in electronic and electrical items, carpet padding, cables, building materials, textiles, mattresses, drapes etc. In 1970, in the US a fire retardant compound called brominated tris was banned from children’s pajamas and another one called chlorinated tris was removed from pajamas because these two flame retardants were shown to cause genetic mutations and were suspected carcinogens. In some studies the flame retardant compounds and their metabolites have been linked with many serious consequences on the health, including on the reproductive and endocrine functions. 

    Scientists say that many of these compounds tend to travel long distance once they get in the environment, and persist in the food chain. These compounds have been detected as far out as in the Arctic and the Antarctic environment. Many of these chlorinated and brominated fire retardant compounds have been found inside the bodies of the wildlife, humans, marine animals, umbilical cord serum and even in the human breast milk.

    These compounds are also commonly found in the indoor dust and environment. Scientists say, "Most brominated and chlorinated flame retardant chemicals, including PBDEs, are additive flame retardants in that they are simply mixed with the polymer resin as plastics and foams are being made and are not chemically bound to the material. Consequently, these chemicals leach continuously out of the final product. Over time, these chemicals accumulate in indoor air and eventually enter the natural environment. Given the ubiquity of these products in the modern world, it should come as no surprise that flame retardant chemicals are being found in all environmental matrices examined including air, water, soil sediment, and sewage sludge."

    Scientists also raise question about lack of proper, environmentally safe disposal facilities, especially in the developing world for electronic items. As more and more of the electronic products are just mass dumped, more and more of these dangerous chemicals are being released in the environment posing a serious health hazard to millions. Scientists say, "When brominated and chlorinated flame retardants burn, high yields of toxic brominated-, chlorinated-, and bromo-chlorinated dioxins and furans are formed. Brominated dioxins have toxicities similar to their chlorinated counterparts in human cell lines, mammalian species, and other assays." They further add that combusting electronic waste containing brominated and/or chlorinated flame retardants requires 'state-of- the-art incinerators operating under stringent conditions'. 

    Perhaps even more disturbing than all of the above is the fact that these so called 'fire-retardant' chemicals may not only be ineffective in retarding the fire but they may even raise the risk of fire, by releasing excessive carbon monoxide and soot. The scientists write, "The fire safety benefit of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants is questionable because they can increase the release of carbon monoxide, toxic gases, and soot which are the cause of most fire deaths and injuries. For example, in one experiment, compared to untreated foam, pentaBDE-treated foam released approximately twice the amount of smoke (833 m2/kg vs. 413 m2/kg), seven times the amount of carbon monoxide (0.13 kg/kg vs. 0.018 kg/kg), and nearly 70 times the amount of soot (0.88 kg/kg vs. 0.013 kg/kg) but only provided three additional seconds before ignition compared to untreated foam (19 seconds vs. 16 seconds).

    Also, the California furniture standard, California Department of Consumer Affairs Technical Bulletin 117 on the flammability of foam inside furniture neither protects the foam from ignition nor reduces the severity of a fire, two measures of efficacy. In applications where chemical flame retardants are considered for use, an investigation should address whether flame retardancy is needed (i.e. breast feeding pillows do not need flame retardancy) and if so, whether appropriate fire safety benefits may be obtained from using chemicals or techniques that do not present such serious potential adverse environmental and human health consequences."

    Scientists recommend that consumers should be made more aware of the dangers of the fire retardant chemicals. The rules concerning the use as well as disposal of items which contain such dangerous chemicals should be clearly defined and followed to ensure safety. Finally when companies seek to use such substances in their products, the scientists say, "When seeking exemptions for certain applications of flame retardants, the party requesting the exemption should supply information indicating why the exemption is technically or scientifically necessary and why potential alternatives are not technically or scientifically viable; a description of potential alternative processes, products, materials, or systems that eliminate the need for the chemical; and a list of sources researched."

    In a nutshell they're advocating that the companies which are using such hazardous chemicals and selling their products to the consumers should be held accountable, which may be easier said that done. The global flame retardant industry, estimated to be worth $3.6 billion shows no signs of slowing down. In fact it is expected to grow more than 4.5% by next year. As Bryan Walsh points out in the TIME, "Well, one of the reasons we don't learn from the past is that industry will fight very hard against tightening regulations of potentially toxic chemicals. The American Chemistry Council — the powerful lobbying group for the chemical industry — argues that studies linking flame retardants to health problems are far from conclusive, and that the benefit the chemicals provide by preventing fire shouldn't be discounted."

    Unfortunately, just what those 'benefits' are and what we're being asked to pay for those 'benefits' has not yet been determined 'conclusively', either. 

    ~ Gauri

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