Fire retardants fanning flames | May 11, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 11, 2007

Fire retardants fanning flames

Pending laws seek to ban substances found in breast milk

by Susan Hong

Babies who drink breast milk may also be ingesting high amounts of flame retardants, according to scientists.

Although California became the first state in the country to ban the sale and use of two of the substances, called polybrominated-diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), in June 2006, one form, deca-BDE, continues to have wide-spread use in the state.

The impact of deca-BDE and other chemicals in the body will be part of a talk, "Toxic Chemicals and Pesticides: Biomonitoring the Chemicals in Your Body," by Davis Baltz of Commonweal/Health Care Without Harm, on May 22 at Acterra in Palo Alto. Commonweal is a non-profit research organization focusing on health and the environment.

Deca-BDE has caused irreversible changes in brain function in mice, which worsened with age, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency, which calls deca-BDE an "emerging chemical of concern." Other studies showed that fetus rats exposed to the chemical while in the womb suffered delayed hardening in their bones, the state environmental agency noted.

Scientists have found deca-BDE in cell-phones, computers, televisions and in furniture with polyurethane foam. These products off-gas deca-BDE, which gets into dust in the home and is inhaled by children, adults and animals.

Infants ingest the greatest amount, according to Arnold Schector of the University of Texas. His study published in Environmental Health Perspectives magazine in October 2006, showed that babies had the highest intake of PBDEs -- more than 300,000 picograms-per-kilogram from ingesting breast milk, compared to 1,000 parts for an adult. Schecter's study indicated that PBDEs also enter the body through foods such as meat, fish and cheese.

California has the most stringent fire-retardant laws in the country; but foam, electronics, furniture, mattress, car and carpet makers say they must use deca-BDE and additional flame retardants to comply with fire-safety laws. According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission the number one cause of fires is cigarettes igniting furniture and mattresses.

Environmentalists say there are better and safer ways than using chemicals to prevent fires. They advocate self-extinguishing cigarettes, home sprinkler systems, inherently fire-resistant fibers and thicker barriers in furniture.

"Chemicals are virtually unregulated in the United States. People assume they are tested for safety before approved, but there is very little scrutiny. We need to have a Marshall Plan to move away from chemicals and use them selectively and make sure they are safe before using," Baltz said.

When the California law went into effect in 2006, the state did not ban deca-BDE because the scientific evidence on the chemical's effects on the human body was believed to be lacking; but some legislators want deca-BDE added to the list.

In Sacramento, Assemblyman Mark Leno (13th district) introduced a bill, AB-706, earlier this year that would ban toxic fire retardants in furniture and bedding products. Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (22nd district) also introduced a bill in 2007 that would ban deca-BDE from any use.

"California shouldn't mandate that kids sleep on poison-filled pillows or play on poison-filled furniture," Leno said, referring to a new regulation that would expand the fire-retardant requirements to pillows and comforters, per the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation. "The type of chemicals being used today have been linked to cancer, birth defects and reproductive difficulties. This bill creates a smarter and improved fire-safety standard for furniture while protecting our kids, workers and others from potentially dangerous exposure to toxic chemicals," he added.

Opponents claim the risk of fire hazard is greater than risks from the fire retardants.

"As the Chamber of Commerce, I'm telling you that this bill could potentially put consumers at risk by depriving them of the most effective flame retardant available due to the sweeping nature of the bill," Vince Sollitto, vice-president of media relations at the California Chamber of Commerce, said.

"I'm saying (the science) is incomplete, it's not conclusive, and before we ban entire classes of chemicals we need to be better informed both about the true risks and the efficacy of any alternatives," he added.

"The legislature is not equipped to deal with the subtle nuances of the science," said John Ulrich, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of California (CICC), which believes state regulators should decide on the hazards of such chemicals.

Scientists are sticking to their research.

"To the best of my knowledge in 30 years, I don't think we have seen any brominated or chlorinated flame retardant shown to be safe to human health," biophysical chemist Arlene Blum said. She noted that after California began to phase out the use of other fire retardants in 2006, foam manufacturers substituted it with another flame retardant called "chlorinated-Tris" -- even though since 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission had banned chlorinated-Tris from children's clothing because of its known toxic effects.

Environmentalists want to see the bill pass. "We're concerned about newborn babies in the very first years of life. They are the most vulnerable to many environmental contaminants," said Sonya Lunder, mother and activist at the Environmental Working Group, a national non-profit activist organization that ran a biomonitoring study three years ago that included findings of deca-BDE in breast milk.

Ý"I understandÝthe severity of the story more personally now that I have a son, and I really see how parents feel stuck when they learn this information, and are faced with the fact that the government isn't doing enough to control our exposures and our kids' exposures to these harmful chemicals," she said.

For information on Davis Baltz's talk at Acterra, contact Debbie Mytels at 650-962-9876, ext. 302,

Editorial Intern Susan Hong can be reached at


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