Stop Playing ‘Whack-A-Mole’ With Toxic Flame Retardants, Health Advocates Urge

As the public has learned of health risks tied to chemicals in everyday products, many companies have responded by eliminating, one by one, the suspected cancer causers, brain damagers and hormone disruptors. But even prompt action doesn’t entirely appease some health experts, who warn of a problematic pattern.

“We’re playing toxic whack-a-mole,” said Arlene Blum, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and executive director of the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute. “When after a great deal of research and testing, a chemical is found to be harmful, then the tendency is to replace it with as similar a chemical as possible. That’s the easiest thing to do.”

History has shown, however, that the substitutes may prove equally harmful. Take, for example, the widespread replacement of bisphenol A with bisphenol S in products such as hard plastic water bottles and cash register receipts. New research suggests the latter chemical may be just as harmful to human health.

On Tuesday, a coalition of medical, consumer and worker safety groups attempted to halt this cycle for flame retardants. Led by Blum’s institute and Earthjustice, they produced a petition asking federal regulators to block an entire class of the chemical concoctions called organohalogens from their widespread use in four categories of consumer products.

When Congress banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in 1977 due to health concerns, the flame retardant industry replaced them with a chemical cousin, polybrominated diphenyl ether. When PBDE was discovered to be just as toxic, it was phased out in 2005, and the industry looked again for easily swappable substitutes to continue meeting flammability standards. Among the popular picks were chlorinated Tris and Firemaster 550, both of which have now been linked with their own growing lists of health concerns, including heart disease, obesity and —> Read More