Here’s a fact to brighten your Thursday: you have a much smaller chance than your grandparents of bursting into flames. That’s because brominated and chlorinated flame retardants (BFR and CFR) — classes of chemicals that inhibit fire ignition — have become common ingredients in everything from clothes to couches to computers. (You can thank safety-conscious California for that; the state’s tough laws on flame retardants led to their wide-scale use by manufacturers around the country.)
But fire safety has come with a cost. The chemicals used to prevent fires have repeatedly been shown to cause damage to human health. First polychlorinated binphenyls (PCBs) were found to be severely toxic to people and the environment, and the chemicals were banned in 1977. Next came polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), another class of chemicals used as flame retardants; over the years PBDEs have been found to accumulate in organic tissues and in the environment — even in human breast milk — and they are hormones disruptors, with links to thyroid and other health problems. PentaBDE and OctaBDE have been banned by the European Union and withdrawn from production by the only U.S. manufacturer; one other chemical, DecaBDE, is still in wide production but is restricted in the European Union and will be voluntarily withdrawn from the U.S. in 2013. (More on Time.com: Canada Declares BPA Toxic. Is the U.S. Next?).
Other BFRs and CFRs have emerged as substitutes for restricted flame retardants, but it turns out that they, too, may be linked to health problems. That’s the word from 145 scientists in 22 countries who today published the first-ever consensus statement documenting health hazards from flame retardant chemicals. Called the “San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame Retardants” — and published in the open academic journal Environmental Health Perspectives (download a PDF here) — the article makes the case that:
Brominated and chlorinated flame retardants as classes of substances are a concern for persistence, bioaccumulation, long-range transport, and toxicity.
What toxicity? CFRs and BFRs contain compounds that are carcinogens, reproductive and neurological toxins and endocrine disruptors. And like their predecessors, once these chemicals come into contact with the human body, they can hang around for a long time, accumulating in greater proportions. (Chemicals that bioaccumulate in tissue can be considered more dangerous than ones that are quickly flushed out of the body.) (More on Time.com: 6 Common Sources of Radiation In Your Life).
Nor are CFRs and BFRs only dangerous in their production and use. Because the chemicals are now common in electronics, they can also pose a risk as e-waste — computers and televisions often end up in the junkyards of developing countries, where they are dismantled and burned by the poor to recycle valuable metals. Unprotected e-waste recycling can result in the spread of brominated and chlorinated dioxins, which can be highly toxic to people and the environment.
In an accompanying editorial in Environmental Health Perspectives (PDF here), Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and Dr. Ake Bergman, an environmental chemist at the University of Stockholm, elaborate on the San Antonio Statement and call for more attention from regulators on flame retardants:
The San Antonio Statement is a call for attention to a continuing pattern of unfortunate substitution. Since the 1970s, BFRs and CFRs have commonly served as substitutes for other BFRs and CFRs, even though there have been early warnings and periodic reminders about the problematic properties of these chemicals. To maintain fire safety, safer alternatives to harmful BFRs and CFRs should be developed. In addition, more attention should be paid to the actual need for flame retardants in products. For example, do nursing pillows and baby strollers need flame retardants? Just as we have known for years that significant exposure to lead occurred via house dust, why has it taken us so long to understand that BFRs and CFRs, which are used in consumer products, also can escape their matrix into house, office, car, and airplane dust, and also will end up in people, the environment, and wildlife? Why do we not learn from the past?
Well, one of the reasons we don’t learn from the past is that industry will fight very hard against tightening regulations of potentially toxic chemicals. The American Chemistry Council — the powerful lobbying group for the chemical industry — argues that studies linking flame retardants to health problems are far from conclusive, and that the benefit the chemicals provide by preventing fire shouldn’t be discounted. (More on Time.com: The Perils of Plastic – Environmental Toxins).
It’s true that the studies linking flame retardants to illnesses — like that of many potential environmental toxins — aren’t yet conclusive, and I think we’ll all agree that avoiding self-immolation is a good thing. But as I wrote for TIME earlier this year, our system for regulating the ever-increasing number of chemicals in our environment is broken, even as there is more and more evidence that what is out there can hurt us — especially at the very beginning of our lives.
I’d always assumed government watchdogs had evaluated and signed off on the safety of the chemicals we encounter in our lives… What we don’t know can really hurt us. And there’s a lot we don’t know.
As the San Antonio Statement shows, we are learning. Now it’s time to act on that knowledge — before even more damage is done.
More from TIME on environmental toxins:
And check out Dr. Gupta’s special “Toxic America” on CNN: