The next year, Blum and Ames found that chlorinated tris, the chemical that had replaced brominated tris, also mutates DNA. Sleepwear manufacturers removed it from their products and switched to polyester and other fabrics that could meet the flammability test without using chemicals.
But federal officials did not ban chlorinated tris, and it continues to be used in other products. According to a report released by Blum and others in 2011, the chemical has been added to foam-filled infant changing table pads, nursing pillows, car seats and sleep positioners, among other products. It was also found in foam collected from sofa samples, along with a mixture called Firemaster 550.
In a preliminary study published last year, a team lead by researchers at Duke University and North Carolina State University reported that Firemaster 550 appears to be an endocrine disrupter that can cause obesity and advanced puberty in rats.
A spokesman for Chemtura, the Middlebury, Conn.-based company that makes Firemaster 550, said in an e-mail that its brominated component went through “extensive testing” before the product was introduced in 2003.
John Gustavsen, corporate communications manager for Chemtura, also noted that studies it provided to the Environmental Protection Agency before the chemical went into production relied on much larger sample sizes than the Duke/North Carolina State study and that those studies found no evidence of “extreme weight gain” even at much higher doses than the university researchers used. “We question the conclusions that have been attributed to what the authors themselves describe as ‘a small-scale study’, ” Gustavsen wrote.
Studies have shown that flame retardants collect in dust, which can then settle on hands and food. Research released last year linked the levels of flame retardants on toddlers’ hands with the amounts found in their blood.
Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, which are part of the National Institutes of Health, says, “For years, we’ve known that dust was a major source of exposure to lead, and we’ve ignored everything else that’s in dust.”
The largest study of children and flame retardants, led by Brenda Eskenazi, director of Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, showed that children with higher exposures to PBDEs in the womb or during early childhood were more likely to score lower on tests assessing coordination, attention and IQ.
Meanwhile, recent studies from independent researchers and from scientists with the CPSC have raised questions about whether flame retardant applications provide any significant safety benefit in some consumer products.
Vytenis Babrauskas, a former head of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s combustion toxicology program, led studies testing the effectiveness of flame retardants in furniture and building insulation. His furniture study found negligible differences between the combustibility of furniture made with treated and untreated foam. In both cases, he says, flame retardant concentrations are insufficient to make any meaningful reduction in hazard.
Since the beginning of the year, California and 12 other states — Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — have considered bills to restrict the use of flame retardants. So far, only the Maryland bill, which prohibits the sale of children’s products made with a form of chlorinated tris, has been passed by a legislature. The bill’s author, Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George’s), says he expects the governor to sign the bill within a month.
In February, 23 U.S. senators sent a letter urging the EPA to determine whether flame retardants in consumer products put Americans, and especially children, at risk, noting that the chemicals are “toxic, persist in our environment, and accumulate in our bodies” while failing to provide “significant protection against the risk of fires.”
Asked for comment for this article, the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, said in an e-mail statement, “Flame retardants help products meet fire safety codes that are designed to provide protection from the effects of fires. Products containing flame retardants are tested to ensure they will pass established fire safety tests.”
“The discussion about toxicity in the [senators’] letter is misleading and implies that all flame retardants have toxicity concerns,” the trade group noted. “Any new fire safety chemical is evaluated for its safety and efficacy, and those evaluations are made available to government regulatory bodies before the product is used.”