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
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