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Health Risks of Toxic Flame Retardants Spur New Standards for Fire-Resistant Products

posted on Mon, Dec 9 2013 10:35 am by Corey Davis

In 1975, California implemented a rule that established a standard for fire-resistant household upholstery. Under this rule, many household products must be able to withstand a small open flame for 12 seconds. Most manufacturers responded by adding toxic chemicals, known as flame retardants, to their products. Because California is such a large market, products carrying these chemicals are typically sold throughout the country. Many of the chemicals, such as Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), are persistent and bio accumulate, or build up in animals and people. The levels of these chemicals found in the bodies of Americans have been doubling every three to five years over the past three decades. American infants now have the highest concentrations of flame retardant chemicals of any in the world. 

A 2010 study found that high PBDE concentration in umbilical cord blood was associated with lower scores on tests of mental and physical development in children 12-48 and 72 months of age. Many of the chemicals used in flame-retardant products are banned or restricted in European countries, and California itself has listed one of them as a chemical known to cause cancer. The same chemical used in upholstery has been banned for use in children’s pajamas since the 1970s because of evidence that it causes DNA mutations. The negative health effects of these fire retardant chemicals have caused many organizations and scientists to raise concerns about the California rule.

California’s policy has been criticized for many years, and several legislative attempts to change the rule have been introduced. However, interest was renewed in 2012, when the Chicago Tribune published a series of reports focused on the rule and its effects. According to these investigative reports, the chemical industry has used a number of tactics to keep the rule in place – including paying a prominent burn physician to provide false testimony to the California legislature. The series also reported that the rule was secretly supported by the tobacco industry, which saw it as an alternative to “fire-safe” cigarettes. Finally, the series reported that there is little evidence that the chemicals actually significantly reduce the risk of fire.

Regulators took note. In November, 2013, the rule was updated. The new rule, which will be phased in over the year starting January 1, 2014, requires upholstery fabric to be able to resist a smoldering cigarette, instead of an open flame. According to the Chicago Tribune, most manufacturers will quickly move to implement the new requirements by removing flame retardants from most or all of their products.

This blog post was developed by Corey Davis, J.D., M.S.P.H., staff attorney at the Network for Public Health Law – Southeastern Region at the National Health Law Program (NHeLP).

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. The views expressed in this post do not represent those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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