Bad-news streak continues for toxic flame redardants

Toxic flame retardants have been getting plenty of bad press lately, notes Devin Gill, an organizer with the Michigan Network for Children's Environmental Health, an affiliate of the Ecology Center.

In May, flame-retardants gained national attention when the Chicago Tribune ran a six-part expose on the efforts of the chemical industry to misconstrue evidence on the toxicity and overstate the efficacy of flame-retardants, Gill wrote in a blog posting on the Network's site. Then earlier this week, the Detroit Free Press ran a series following up on the lingering, toxic effects of polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) decades after one of the worst agricultural disasters in our nation’s history occurred right here in Michigan.

"Unless we create better regulations for the chemical industry, we can expect to hear more about toxic chemical exposures and the chemical industry behaving badly," Gill wrote in her posting.  "Since the 1970s, our government has been playing a game of chemical whack-a-mole to ban toxic flame-retardants.  As soon as one toxic chemical is taken off the market, a new, equally toxic chemical takes its place in the production line."

The Free Press series focused on the aftermath of the contamination of cattle feed in Michigan in 1974. As a result, thousands of cattle were contaminated with PBB, a chemical that was commonly used as a flame retardant. More than 30,000 poisoned cattle were buried along with 1.5 million chickens and thousands of pigs, sheep, and rabbits that were indirectly contaminated.

Even today, the PBB persists today in Michigan soil and rivers, and in the bodies of many men, women, and children who consumed contaminated beef or milk, according to the paper. Families who lived close to these farms continue to be diagnosed with rare diseases and cancers that are linked to their exposure to high levels of PBB.  

Despite that catastrophe, toxic chemicals continue to be used in many products, exposing people to unnecessary hazards. "Our country’s history with toxic flame-retardants is starting to sound like a bad record stuck on repeat," Gill writes. 

After the PBB incident in Michigan, manufacturers in the United States stopped the production of PBB, not the first time a flame-retardant was be banned in the U.S., according to Gill.

In the 1970s, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were banned because of their high toxicity. PCBs are flame-retardants that are characteristically similar to PBBs. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are also structurally very similar to PCBs and PBBs, and are toxic as well.  Two of the commercial forms of PBDEs, penta-BDE and octa-BDE, were banned by the Michigan Legislature in 2004.

"But deca-BDE was not banned, even though it is known to break down into these two other more toxic forms," according to Gill.  "Now, concerns are being raised about new classes of flame-retardants, including chlorinated Tris or TCPP, which has been classified as a carcinogen by the state of California. PCBs, PBDEs, PBBs, TCPP…it may all sound like alphabet soup, but the reality is that these chemicals don’t just sound the same, they act the same and are similarly toxic."

While there are safer alternatives to toxic flame-retardants, the government has been slow to revise the Toxic Substances Control Act, the current federal regulation for the chemical industry, which hasn't been updated since it was adopted in the late 1970s.

"Our health is needlessly being put at risk," Gill writes. "Many of these toxic flame-retardants are already banned in the European Union, so what are we waiting for?"

The MNCEH is encouraging concerned citizens to advocate for reform. "We need to tell our legislators that enough is enough," Gill writes. "It is time that we protect our families, friends, and ourselves from toxic chemicals in every day products.  Please tell your Senators that you want them to support the Safe Chemicals Act! The sooner we act, the sooner we can stop this toxic treadmill."

The Ecology Center is one of the founders of the MNCEH, a coalition of health professional, health-affected and environmental organizations across the state. 

EcoLink — Sept 2012 Ecolink
An online publication of the Ecology Center

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