Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hold the Flame Retardants, Please

Eco-novice fans the flames of flame retardant controversy

I read an article this week in the Los Angeles Times (via EWG's Enviroblog) that, for me, epitomizes all that is wrong with US chemical regulation, and flame retardant regulation in particular.

The article discusses a recently published study that found in California pregnant women the "highest levels ever reported among pregnant women worldwide of toxic polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), flame retardant chemicals largely banned in California in 2004." The levels of PBDEs in pregnant California women were 10 to 100 times higher than levels found in pregnant women in Europe and Asia, and about 2 to 3 times higher than levels found in pregnant women in other parts of the U.S. Researchers believe the pregnant women's high PBDE levels were likely due to California’s unique flammability regulations (stricter than most of the nation) enacted in the 1970s: Technical bulletin 117. As the L.A. Times article reports, "PBDEs may be toxic to the liver, thyroid and nerve development, according to the EPA." And, according to the study's lead researcher, "there’s a wealth of research that shows these chemicals interfere with development and can lead to lower IQs later on." A California woman myself, the article was a sobering reminder to me of the individual effects of government policy.

The L.A. Times article includes a conversation with Ami Zota, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF's Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment and lead author of the study. A few excerpts from the interview (emphasis mine):
Q: So are pregnant women getting exposed to these chemicals because when they're getting ready to have a baby they buy used cribs and car seats?
A: It’s a possibility. They’re probably more likely getting exposed because these products are in their home. When they’re added to the foam in furniture and other products, they’re not chemically bound, they’re basically sprayed on the foam so they end up in house dust and indoor air. We breathe in the air, unintentionally eat the dust. The other way we are exposed is these chemicals have ended up in our food supply.

Q: How are they getting in the food supply?
A: They end up in the air in manufacturing. You throw stuff away and it ends up in a landfill. They’ve been found in polar bears and even house cats.

Q: How would we eliminate [the potential harm caused by PBDEs]?
A: We’re still replacing these chemicals with other chemicals that in many cases are structurally similar and have not been thoroughly tested. That was part of the problem — we did not thoroughly test these chemicals before we started to use them in the marketplace. Ultimately the goal is to go toward an approach where we’re thoroughly evaluating chemicals, particularly their effects on vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and developing children. What this shows is with these chemicals, even once they’re banned, you can’t get rid of them.
Q: What can the rest of us do to prevent exposure?
A: That’s a tough question. It requires a combination of individual and group behavior. Pregnant women can dust and wet mop their home, wash their hands frequently, try to avoid products made from foam. Ultimately, it’s very hard to avoid our exposures to these products because they’re so widespread. We need policy measures. There have been efforts to modify this technical bulletin 117. It’s never been shown to be effective to reduce fire-related injury or death, and there are other approaches to fire safety including fire-safe cigarette and building codes.

Flame retardants seem to pop up in the news all the time these days. Earlier this year, for example, we learned that chemical flame retardants, many considered toxic, are widely present in baby products, such as nursing pillows, changing table pads, sleep positioners, portable mattresses, baby carriers, rocking chairs and highchairs. Also earlier this year, I was sent emails asking me to support SB-147, a bill to update California's flammability requirements. That was when I first learned that many experts believe that chemical flame retardants do not prevent fire-related injury or death, but do make smoke from house fires considerably more toxic, in addition to polluting our bodies and environments from everyday contact.

Now that I'm in the market for a car seat for my 4-year-old, I find myself trying to decipher the Ecology Center's latest research on the levels of flame retardants and other chemical additives in car seats, as if worrying about safety ratings, 5-point harness versus booster with regular seat belt, life-span and environmental impact, price, width, and comfort wasn't bad enough.

I'm getting really tired of dealing with this flame retardant issue.  I can't tell you how much I've agonized over mattress purchases.  I'm tired of getting children's fleece pajamas treated with flame retardants from my in-laws every Christmas. Can we just enact some decent chemical regulation already?

A few tips for limiting your exposure to flame retardants:

  • Support the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 and join Safer Chemicals Healthy Family's email list, so that  you can contact your representatives when relevant legislation comes up for discussion or voting.
  • Avoid purchasing products with polyurethane foam ("solid fuel") and repair old furniture with exposed foam
  • Avoid products that meet California Technical Bulletin 117.  I've seen this tag on 100% cotton quilted comforters and decorative pillows, for example.
  • Vacuum, wet mop, and dust often.  This is a tough one for me, but I focus on rooms where children spend lots of time.
  • Wash hands with soap and water often.
  • Don't buy fleece pajamas treated with flame retardants (look for the 100% cotton pajamas with tags that say "wear snug-fitting not flame resistant").
  • Next time you are in the market for a mattress, consider getting one made of natural materials without flame retardants.  For me, this has become a top priority, since you spend a whole lot of your life on a mattress.


Kate said...

From what I've been able to discern through talking with Carters, Gerber, and a few other brand manufacturers (after a round of Christmas gifts :-), fleece pajamas do not usually contain "flame retardants" as polyester is "flame resistant" without the addition of those chemicals, though it is a synthetic fiber which we have chosen to avoid for our brand new ones. Cotton or other natural fibers are, ironically, the ones to worry about. If they are marked "not flame resistant. Wear tight-fitting" on the tag it means they have not been chemically treated. Those are the ones we buy.
One more thing: Baby sleepwear (under size 9 months for most makers) is not required to be treated as babies that young are not considered mobile enough for it to be worth the risk of putting those chemicals in such close proximity to their tiny bodies. This is what a nice lady at Gerber told me when I called.

Betsy (Eco-Novice) said...

Kate, thank you for sharing that conversation. I had not heard that about pajamas for babies. This publication confirms that the regulation applies only for sizes 9 mo to size 14:

Unfortunately, I am not entirely inclined to believe a random customer service person to be fully informed on how their synthetic fabrics achieve the flame retardant standard. I found this informative excerpt in an article by Jennifer Taggart (Smart Mama), whom I trust:
If the item is sleepwear and it is made of a synthetic fiber, it has flame retardants. All synthetic materials have flame retardants added. The issue for synthetic fabrics is whether the sleepwear is “chemically treated” or not. Only some sleepwear is “chemically treated” with flame retardants. Chemically treated fabrics have a chemical flame retardant added to the sleepwear. These sleepwear items include nylon and acetate fabrics.
However, most synthetic fiber sleepwear has a flame retardant inserted into the fabric fiber, including most polyester fabrics, as opposed to the fabric being “chemically treated” with a flame retardant. Fiber with flame retardants inserted into the fabric fiber are considered chemically stable. These manufacturers may claim that the sleepwear is not treated with a chemical flame retardant, and that’s true. The sleepwear is not “chemically treated.” But that doesn’t mean it is free of flame retardants. If children’s sleepwear is synthetic, flame retardant is present, whether the fabric is treated with flame retardant or the flame retardant is bonded to the fiber.

The fact is, if a product is labeled as flame retardant, no one has to disclose HOW they are achieving the standard, and sometimes even the company's themselves often are not allowed to know:

Unless you are able to conduct independent testing, or the manufacturer wants to print the technology (chemical or otherwise) being used on the label, I personally would not feel sure about what is being used.

Many products treated with flame retardants are NOT labeled as such, which makes it nearly impossible to avoid them entirely. I try my best to at least avoid the ones that ARE labeled as flame retardant.

P.S. For those interested, here is a discussion about how parents have tried to remove or reduce flame retardant chemicals in PJs:

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Ugh, this issue makes me NUTS. We went through it with mattresses a few years ago, and it's just scary how much it creeps up.

I confess, I have moved to simply making pjs for my daughter out of natural and non-flame-retardant fabrics, though I have the occasional terror moment that something will happen and mine will be that one kid in God-knows-how-many that something flammable will happen to. My son usually just sleeps in sweats and t-shirts.

The other thing, of course, we can't ever know for sure (unless we buy organic) is whether whatever it is we buy or are wearing is sprayed with something nasty for some other reason. Or no reason at all.

(Ain't I the voice of joy today?)

Kate said...

Betsy, you're right about the's easier and safer to just put them in natural fibers. And I do remember aforementioned random customer service person mentioning that flame retardants were 'bonded to the fiber.'
Actually, my daughter sleeps mostly in t-shirts that no longer fit my erm...expanding figure...and it's pretty cute to see her wearing all my angsty high school girl t-shirts. She even has a special few that were passed down from my mom.

SustainaMom said...

The mattress question stresses me out beyond belief. I'm researching pillows now, and I haven't found anywhere local to compare organic wool pillows in person so I guess I will have to take the plunge and order online fluffiness untested....

Betsy (Eco-Novice) said...

SustainaMom, we have wool pillows that we love. One thing to know about wool pillows -- they go down a lot after the first few months. I thought the ones we bought were WAY too thick when we got them, but now they are perfect. The company I bought from is Kelly Green. They use "eco-wool" not organic, though. (I have no affiliation with them.)

becki said...

We try to buy the snug fit pajamas as well or use other comfy clothes for sleepwear. I wouldn't be opposed to making my own PJs though. I just need more time! Any suggestions for asking family members to avoid these dangerous chemicals without sounding crazy?

Betsy (Eco-Novice) said...

becki, I often just lie and tell people that my kids have really sensitive skin and can only wear natural fibers.


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