Chemical Flame Retardants - Ineffective & Harmful; Chemical Manufacturers - Effective & Harmful

Bill Walsh - July 21, 2011

We are often told that the market will not support green products and alternatives to toxic chemicals that cost more. Yet according to a published report, the Chemtura Corporation will raise prices in all regions on bromine-based products by up to 30% to secure, among other things, "advocacy efforts."[1] Chemtura is one of three companies that manufacturer Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs), and one of the advocacy efforts they are talking about is a multimillion-dollar campaign to defeat legislation in California that would update a 1970s flammability standard to maintain fire safety without the use of toxic chemicals.

In my last newsletter, I reported from a conference on BFRs that a growing body of scientific evidence is pointing to serious health hazards in humans and wildlife from these chemicals, which are widely used in foam insulation and furniture.[2] Many of the studies were alarming.[3] Women and children are the most vulnerable to the impacts of BFRs. In many respects, the most alarming information was presented by Dr. Arlene Blum, Director of the Green Science Policy Institute. She documented the lack of fire safety benefits from an obscure California regulation that all but mandates the use of toxic fire retardant chemicals, as well as the deceptive and expensive campaign by three chemical manufacturers to promote the sales of their products.

Blum noted that Californians have the world's highest levels of toxic fire retardants in their household dust - three and a half times higher than the next highest samples tested (in Boston) - due to a state regulation known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) whose obscure technical requirements effectively mandate the use of toxic fire retardant chemicals. No other state has a similar requirement, though some furniture products manufactured for the national market are treated with flame retardants in order to meet the California standard.

Dr. Blum is well aware of the adverse health impacts associated with these chemicals. At the Boston conference, she touched on some of the vast scientific literature documenting BFRs in wildlife and humans around the globe.[4] In order to determine whether the toxic impacts of these chemical exposures are the price we must pay for improved fire safety, Blum consulted with fire safety authorities and code writing agencies, testing laboratories and the authors of leading studies on the chemicals. She documented that in the three and a half decades since TB 117 was enacted, California has done no better than any other state in improving fire safety. Indeed the national improvement in fire safety seems largely attributable to reduced cigarette smoking. She also investigated how the TB 117 regulation affected smoldering, small flame ignition, heat release and escape times. She documented that fire retardants required to meet TB 117 did not enhance fire safety in any of these areas. No fire safety official disagreed with her.

In 2010 the three companies that manufacture BFRs, Albermarle, Chemtura and IC-LTD Industrial Products (Dead Sea Bromine), created a fake grassroots campaign, Citizens for Fire Safety, as a front group for their multimillion-dollar campaign to defeat regulatory reforms in California and other states. It has been an effective and harmful campaign to protect an ineffective and harmful product - so far.

As a green building professional, you can reduce and sometimes eliminate these chemicals from green buildings with careful materials selection. LEED Pilot Credit 11 offers incentives to LEED project teams to do so, and the easiest way to obtain these credits is by using the online Pharos Building Product Library. Subscribers can use filters to search the Pharos database for products that qualify for this new credit.


Footnotes

[2] Brominated flame retardants are one type of chemical added to building materials to reduce flammability. They are persistent and bio-accumulative endocrine disrupting chemicals, and are associated with numerous health impacts including reproductive, thyroid, developmental and neurological disorders including decreased fertility, and birth defects.

[3] Title, authors and abstracts for all of the studies referenced in this article, and all other BFR 2011 presentations, can be found at: http://www.bfr2011.org/documents/bfr2011_program_full_final.pdf

[4] Dr. Blum is well aware of the adverse health impacts associated with these chemicals as both a scientist, and as a cat owner. At the Boston conference, Blum touched on some of the scientific literature documenting BFRs in wildlife and humans around the globe. But most engaging was the story of her own cat, Midnight, who was diagnosed with a hyperthyroid condition after losing over half of her body weight. Recalling that BFRs were associated with thyroid disorders in several other animal species, and the workers exposed to BFRs had higher than average rates of thyroid disorders, she sent samples of Midnight's blood and dust gathered from her home to a laboratory. The lab reported that both the cat and the dust had the highest levels of flame retardants they had ever seen. Blum traced the source of the chemicals to her 20 year old couch. Tests determined the levels of fire retardant in the couch cushions to be 6%. The couch went to the curb, the BFR levels in the household dust plummeted from 95 ppm (parts per million) to 3 ppm. Midnight died of the hyperthyroid condition and Blum established the Midnight Memorial Cat project to research to study feline exposure to halogenated flame retardants. After pets, babies and toddlers are the most highly exposed group to these chemicals.


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