In a stunning victory for consumer safety and a powerful display of the ability of independent science to spur policy change, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) voted this week to ban a class of additive, polymeric organhalogen flame retardants (OFRs) that are present in many consumer products. Last week, I was one of many individuals who testified before the CPSC urging the body to grant a petition to ban the class of organohalogen flame retardants from four classes of consumer products: mattresses, children’s products, furniture, and electronic casings.
Of the 31 individuals who testified last week, there were only two individuals who advised the CPSC not to ban OFRs: representatives from the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Information Technology Industry Council. As Commissioner Marietta Robinson pointed out during the hearing, the only comments opposing the ban “represent those with a financial interest in continuing to have these potentially toxic, and some of them definitively, toxic, chemicals in our environment.” She also noted that the presentations by those opposed to the petition were not transparent and used materials relating to chemicals that were irrelevant to the petition, a drastic contrast to the numerous scientists and scholars whose heavily footnoted statements provided evidence to support the arguments of the well-bounded petition.
Scientific information trumps corporate disinformation
Commissioner Robert Adler, who submitted the motion to grant the petition, compared the chemical industry’s talking points at the hearing on reasons not to ban OFRS to the tobacco industry’s same denial of the health impacts of smoking. His statement read, “if we took the tobacco industry’s word on cigarette safety, we would still be waiting. Similarly, we have waited for years for our friends the chemical industry to provide us with credible evidence that there are safe OFRS. I have little doubt that we will still be waiting for many years, to no avail.” Sadly, he’s probably right.
We have seen this trend time and time again. Whether it was the tobacco industry, the asbestos industry, the sugar industry, the PCB industry, the agrochemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the oil and gas industry, corporate bad actors have known about risks of their products and have chosen not to act to protect the public for years, sometimes decades. Not only do they deny that there is harm, but they actively push for policies that allow them to conceal the truth for even longer. As Oxford University’s Henry Shue wrote about fossil fuel companies like Exxon in a recent Climatic Change article, noting that “companies knowingly violated the most basic principle of ‘do no harm.’” It is unethical and unacceptable that the public is not afforded the information we deserve on the harms of products we are exposed to every day in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and everything in between.
Case in point: ACC’s statement after the CPSC’s vote included sticking to its talking points and pivoting from whether OFRs are safe to whether they reduce fire risk. During the hearing, the ACC representative argued that the petition was overly broad and that there was insufficient data on each OFR to ban them as a class. However, when asked by Commissioners for evidence that certain OFRs did not cause harm, he was unable to point to a specific chemical or cite relevant research. At a certain point, there is no place to pivot when the facts are stacked against you.
Dust is something I never gave much thought to growing up. If anything, “dusting” was always my favorite chore when faced with the options of vacuuming or washing the dishes. I never really gave much thought to what that elusive substance was composed of. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that within those seemingly innocuous dust bunnies hiding behind bookshelves were a mix of chemicals that could impact my health. Dusting has taken on new meaning for me since conducting research on flame retardants.
For decades now, consumers have been left powerless and at the whim of manufacturers who have decided for us what chemicals go into our homes and end up in our dust.
The result? Most Americans have at least one type of flame retardant present in our blood, young children have higher levels than their mothers, and children of color and those from low income communities bear disproportionately high levels of these chemicals in addition to a host of other chemical burdens.
To leave our descendants a livable world is not an act of kindness, generosity, or benevolence…it is merely the honoring of a basic general, negative responsibility not to allow our own pursuits to undercut the pre-conditions for decent societies in the future.
This ban is beyond due. Moving away from these chemicals toward safer alternatives is a win for all, this generation and next.
Product safety is not a political issue
During the vote, Commissioner Adler said that he holds strong to the belief that “product safety is not a partisan issue and should never politicized” after a statement from one of the two Republican Commissioners that granting this petition through a vote down party lines would turn the issue into a political football. Commissioner Robinson defended Adler, stating that she was “absolutely flummoxed” and had “absolutely no clue what the science of this petition and these flame retardants has to do with whether you’re a Democrat or Republican nor what it has to do with my term being potentially up.” The granting of a petition rooted in rigorous science is not a political action. However, obstructing this science-based rulemaking process would be.
While the CPSC has voted to begin the process of rulemaking to ban OFRs under the Federal Hazardous Substance Act and to convene a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel, the Commission will be shifting its composition as Marietta Robinson’s term ends in September. It is possible that this scientific issue could become politicized once President Trump nominates a Republican to join the CPSC and take back the majority. In fact, chairwoman Buerkle even suggested that the ban be overruled once the Republicans take back the majority. President Trump intends to nominate corporate lawyer, Dana Baiocco, who has defended companies that have faced charges regarding safety and misleading advertising of consumer and industrial products and medical devices.
We urge the Commission to continue the progress begun during yesterday’s vote to educate the public about the risks of OFRs and to create the policy that will ban these chemicals in consumer products for good. Let’s let science, not politics, have the final word. Our children will thank us someday.