Monday, June 4, 2012

The Toxic Chemicals in Your Couch--And How They Got There

Last month the Chicago Tribune published a stunning four part series revealing how chemical companies and Big Tobacco have waged a decades-long campaign of deception that has led to the furniture, baby products and electronics in our homes being loaded with toxic flame retardant chemicals. These chemicals have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and infertility. The kicker? These dangerous chemicals don't work--they don't protect us from fire in any meaningful way.

The campaign began with Big Tobacco, which wanted to deflect attention away from cigarettes as the cause of fire deaths and onto the couches and chairs that were going up in flames. So tobacco companies launched a campaign touting flame retardant furniture as the best way to protect consumers against fire. Big Tobacco's tactics have been carried forward by chemical companies evidently willing to go to any lengths to preserve the lucrative market for their flame retardant products. The campaign has included the creation of a phony consumer watchdog group (actually an industry front group) that spent millions of dollars lobbying state legislators and testifying at hearings before state legislatures about the benefits of flame retardant chemicals. The chemical companies also distorted and manipulated scientific findings to promote the widespread use of flame retardants and to downplay their health risks.

Some flame retardants escape from the foam in furniture and other household products, and from the plastic casings of electronics, and settle in dust. We ingest surprisingly large amount of that dust. Toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths, have far higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than adults. The authors also note that a typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants in his body of any infants in the world.

The Tribune describes how the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed generation after generation of these chemicals into our homes without ever assessing the health risks. Current federal law gives the government almost no power to assess or limit the dangers from thousands of chemicals added to furniture, electronics, toys, cosmetics and other household products. The law allows manufacturers to sell products without proving they are safe. And even once adverse health effects have been demonstrated, the law makes it almost impossible for the EPA to ban chemicals.

Manufacturers removed one flame retardant, chlorinated Tris, from children's pajamas decades ago after it was linked to cancer. Major health and regulatory agencies have identified chlorinated Tris as a cancer risk. Yet the EPA says it is largely powerless to do anything about the chemical and it is still used in couches, nursing pillows, car seats, highchairs, diaper-changing pads and other products made with polyurethane foam (without any warning labels).

I encourage you to take the time the read the entire series. It is an astounding account of the the almost complete lack of regulation of dangerous chemicals in household products and of the role of money in politics. For a good summary, take a look at Nicholas Kristof's New York Times op-ed piece.

Finally, if you are asking yourself, as I was, how you can reduce your and your family's exposure to flame retardant chemicals, the series includes this article about the difficulty of avoiding flame retardants. In it, one of the nation's leading experts on fire retardants describes how she switched the flooring in her living room from carpet to hardwood in an attempt to reduce the accumulation of dust. She also advises frequent hand washing to reduce exposure to contaminated dust, particularly after touching dryer lint, which can concentrate not only flame retardants but other toxic chemicals that escape from household products.

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