Consumer Product Safety Commission Takes On Flame Retardants

, science and policy analyst, Center for Science and Democracy | September 15, 2017, 2:53 pm EST
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In 2015, Earthjustice and Consumer Federation of America, on behalf of a broad coalition of health, consumer, science and firefighter organizations, petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban a class of flame retardants, additive organohalogen flame retardants, from children’s products, furniture, mattresses, and electronic casings as hazardous substances.

Graphic: Consumer Federation of America

The CPSC is considering whether or not to grant the petition and held a public hearing yesterday, at which I testified regarding the risks of flame retardants in households and the way in which flame retardant manufacturers and their lead trade association, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), have fought hard to keep these hazardous products on the market. The ACC is not a stranger to using the disinformation playbook. As we documented in our 2015 report, Bad Chemistry, the ACC has wielded influence to delay and quash important safeguards on a long list of chemicals, has funded science to exaggerate the chemicals’ effectiveness at lowering fire risk, and has employed innocuous-sounding front groups to do its dirty work without disclosing its relationship. A 2012 Chicago Tribune series did an excellent job of bringing much of the trade association’s activities to light.

The Commission will vote next week to determine whether they will grant the petition and begin to develop proposed rulemaking to ban these chemicals. We hope that the Commission will heed the recommendations of a long list of scientists, public health, and legal experts who agree that the CPSC has the legal authority and the scientific backing to ban these chemicals.

My testimony is below.


Good afternoon, I would like to thank Chairwoman Buerkle and the CPSC Commissioners for the opportunity to testify before you today on this important issue. My name is Genna Reed. I am the science and policy analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. With more than 500,000 members and supporters across the country, we are a national, nonpartisan, non-profit group, dedicated to improving public policy through rigorous and independent science. The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS advocates for improved transparency and integrity in our democratic institutions, especially those making science-based public policy decisions.

The Union of Concerned Scientists stands with other members of the scientific community in supporting this petition calling upon the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to declare organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs) as a hazardous class of chemicals and to ban their use in children’s products, furniture, mattresses and the casings surrounding electronics. The scientific evidence laid out in the petition supports this regulatory change. The CPSC has the authority to protect the public from toxic substances that “may cause substantial personal injury or substantial illness.”

Since the Center’s inception, we have worked to protect scientific integrity within the federal government and called attention to incidences of special interests mischaracterizing science to advocate for specific policy goals. The chemical industry and its trade association, the American Chemistry Council’s, work to sow doubt about the science revealing harms about chemicals’ impacts on our health, including flame retardants, is an egregious example of this inappropriate behavior.

The companies that manufacture OFRs have put significant time and money into distorting the scientific truth about these chemicals. As a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigative series noted, the chemical industry “has twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry-funded reports as rigorous science.” In one case, manufacturers of flame retardants repeatedly pointed to a decades-old government study, arguing the results showed a 15-fold increase in time to escape fires when flame retardants were present. The lead author of the study, however, said industry officials “grossly distorted” the results and that “industry has used this study in ways that are improper and untruthful,” as the amount of flame retardant used in the tests was much greater than would be found in most consumer items. The American Chemistry Council has further misrepresented the science behind flame retardants by creating an entire website to spread misleading ideas about flame retardants as safe and effective, even though research has consistently shown their limited effectiveness. In doing so, the American Chemistry Council and its member companies have promoted the prevalent use of OFRs at the expense of public health.

Looking at these chemicals through a strictly objective lens illustrates the need for CPSC’s swift action. Toxicity and exposure data support the assessment of organohalogen flame retardants as a class of chemicals under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA). Properties that are shared by OFRs include their semivolatility and ability to migrate from consumer products into house dust and exposure has been associated with a range of health impacts including reproductive impairment, neurological impacts, endocrine disruption, genotoxicity, cancer, and immune disorders.  As a class, there is an adequate body of evidence supporting the conclusion that these chemicals have the “capacity to cause personal illness” and therefore meet the definition of “toxic” under FHSA. Perhaps most egregiously, biomonitoring data have revealed that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to and bear high levels of flame retardant chemicals, adding to the cumulative chemical burden that these communities are already experiencing, from increased fine particulate matter from power plants or refineries in their neighborhoods to higher levels of contaminants in their drinking water.

I’ve seen firsthand the persistence of the earliest form of flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), that still plague the sediment and water of the Hackensack Meadowlands just a couple of miles from where I grew up in New Jersey. One of my first jobs was working in the chemistry division of the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute where I spent my days extracting PCBs and organochlorine pesticides from the soil and sediment of the Meadowlands and analyzing that data. Despite being banned in 1977, these chemicals are still found in dangerously high amounts all over industrial hotspots of the country, and continue to bioaccumulate in a range of species. The ban of PCBs happened decades ago and we are still managing the damaging impacts of the chemical’s prevalence across the country. The next generation of these chemicals, organohalogen flame retardants, are inside of our own homes in a range of products, thanks largely in part to the disinformation campaign sowed by special interests. The fact remains that the science does not support their continued use.

Seeing firsthand the persistence of PCBs in my local environment inspired me to use my scientific training to work to design or improve policies that minimize public health and environmental risks to prevent future scenarios of chemicals overburdening ecosystems and households. That is why I’m here today to ask the CPSC to act with urgency to grant this petition and further regulate OFRs to protect our children and future generations.

Thank you.

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