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Stop Playing with Fire

Mike Belliveauby Mike Belliveau, Senior Advisor

Several years ago I had a front row seat to the deceptions and distorted science of the bromine chemical industry, which the Chicago Tribune documented so well this past week.

Then, former Maine Speaker of House Hannah Pingree proposed legislation to ban all brominated flame retardants.  The PBDEs in our couches and TVs had turned our homes into virtual Superfund toxic waste sites, contaminating everything from breast-feeding babies to harbor seals with brain damaging chemicals.

The chemical industry followed the tobacco industry playbook, buying the national fire marshals’ loyalty and running TV, radio and print ads claiming that babies would burn up if the bill passed.  Their heavy-handed tactics backfired.  The Maine fire services united with health advocates, and the Maine Legislature banned PBDEs, the most notorious flame retardants, by an overwhelming margin.

It turns out that Rep. Pingree’s original call for a more sweeping phase-out was right.  The PBDE replacements aren’t safe either.  Chemtura replaced the Penta mix of PBDEs in couch cushions with a different mix of new and old brominated flame retardants under the brand name Firemaster 550.

The final Tribune investigative report today exposes the badly broken chemical safety system that plagues public health in the United States:

“At a time when consumers clamor for more information about their exposure to toxic substances, the chemical safety law allows manufacturers to sell products without proving they are safe and to treat the formulas as trade secrets. Once health effects are documented, the law makes it almost impossible for the EPA to ban chemicals.”

Under EPA’s flawed new chemicals program, the agency gave secret approval to TBB, now known to be a key chemical ingredient to Firemaster 550, despite red flags about its safety raised by its own scientists.  Now, TBB is routinely found in household dust and the environment, and scientific concerns about its toxicity are growing stronger.

When the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA) was passed, 62,000 existing chemicals were grandfathered in, including the brominated phthalate TBPH used in Firemaster 550.  That means no mandatory health and safety testing or safety decisions are required.  The agency must demonstrate harm and justify costs.  While the chemical industry gets a free ride, we get preventable disease and disabilities.

No wonder the chemical industry has lobbied so hard to maintain the status quo in opposition to the Safe Chemicals Act and meaningful TSCA reform.

The toxic flame retardant scandal should be a wake up call for Congress.  Similar toxic disasters in the past – like thalidomide in the 1960s, PCBs in the 1970s and Bhopal in the 1980s – spurred badly needed chemical reforms in their day.

It’s time to stop playing with fire and fix our broken chemical safety system.