A Fear of Flame Retardants Spreads Like Wildfire

What’s in your couch?

You may not think the answer to that question is important, but to many it is. It’s so important that the Duke University Superfund Research Center, a research lab in Durham, NC, is dedicated to testing foam samples for their chemical composition.

The lab is answering the call of concerned consumers across the country: are we being exposed to flame retardants?

Flame retardants are chemical compounds that can withstand exposure to an open flame. The manufacturing of flame-retardants in our products is primarily driven by Technical Bulletin 117, the flammability standard for the state of California. TB-117 requires that the foam in furniture, and baby products, be able to withstand exposure to a small open flame for 12 seconds.

Flame retardants do not only exist in our couches. Manufacturers have added these chemicals to our office supplies, home furniture, and of most notable concern, our baby products. But is the fear of flame-retardants well merited?

Don’t be so quick to throw out your toys

Researchers at the Duke University Lab cite that studies have shown negative health effects associated with these chemicals. These health effects include disruptions of the neurological and endocrine systems, but it is hard to decipher if these affects are solely a consequence of flame-retardants.

TDCPP (chlorinated tris phospate) is a flame retardant that is under heavy scrutiny. Duke University researchers Gretchen Kroeger and Ellen Cooper say that there are likely health outcomes of TDCPP because it is closely related to a compound that contains carcinogenic properties. The cousin compound was removed from pajamas in the 1970s for this reason.

However, Kroeger and Cooper warn that directly attributing adverse health effects to flame-retardants can cause unwarranted chaos.

According to Kroeger, the media’s perception of flame-retardants has caused some to throw out brand new couches and car seats, an act she finds unnecessary based on the research available.

“We can never say absolutely that this level of TDCDP that we found in your furniture is going to cause this set of health impacts in you or your child,” Kroeger says. TDCPP may metabolize into a whole set of other chemicals that may be more toxic than the compound as a whole, but people’s bodies metabolize differently.

Cooper thinks that there is one word that has caused fear to spread so intensely: toxic. “A lot of times people will try to put words in our mouth but we never say that these are toxic. This is a fear inspiring word,” she said. “’Toxic’ brings impairment and fear. People stop working and people stop learning.”

The market is at work to keep your baby healthy

A lot of the hysteria regarding flame-retardants circulates around baby products. Researchers are working towards identifying flame-retardants in baby products in order to understand the levels of exposure babies receive through these products.

A study by Heather Stapleton based at Duke University found that 80% of baby products tested contained flame-retardants. The most common flame retardant found in the study was TDCPP, the aforementioned compound associated with negative health effects.

Mark Fellin is the Director of Public Affair and flame retardant expert at JPMA, the manufacturer for baby products at Toys R Us, Inc. “I would be the first to say that the level of flame retardants in these products is significantly less than the public opinion,” Fellin states. “But I do understand the concern.”

Whether merited or not, the heightened concern in consumers is affecting the market. Fellin states, “We don’t want these in our products because the consumers don’t want them.” Without the support of the consumer, costs are driven up and it adds an increased liability.

JPMA has been able to get 18 products exempt from TB117, meaning that these products no longer have to meet the flammability standard.

Like Kroeger and Cooper, Fellin warns consumers not to draw harsh conclusions about the effects of flame-retardants. Scientific studies contain a lot of variables that are difficult to separate.

The future of flame retardants in our baby products

For now, Kroeger says, “Dusting can do a lot to reduce our exposure.” The toxins move out into the air and settle in the dust. This is especially important for kids, who have a lot of hand to mouth contact with dirtier objects.

Researchers and various organizations are trying to generate databases of information for consumers who want to know more about flame-retardants.

“Do I think that they are going to be 100% accurate?” states Kroeger. “No.” In the meantime, we wait for more data to be collected to find the most plausible trends.

JPMA and other manufacturers hear from concerned consumers everyday, driving a new initiative to do alternative assessments of these potentially harmful chemicals.

Effective on October 1st of 2013, California enacted Safer Consumer Product regulations, which require manufacturers and distributors to use safer alternatives to harmful products. The State of California Department of Toxic Substances Control recently proposed TDCPP as a “priority product.” This means that manufacturers will have to find ways to reduce or remove TDCPP from their products.

Until this is enacted, Fellin tells concerned consumers to read the labels. If the label says that the product meets the TB-117 requirement, it has flame-retardants. The same product without this label probably doesn’t.

Like Kroeger and Cooper, Fellin warns consumers not to draw harsh conclusions about the effects of flame-retardants. Scientific studies contain a lot of variables that are difficult to separate.

“Let’s put it this way,” Fellin states. “If my wife were to buy baby products, she wouldn’t want flame retardants in the products. Being in the industry, I don’t think flame-retardants in juvenile products are necessary. However, I think flame retardants have an important purpose in certain settings.”

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