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Is Fire Safety Putting Us at Risk?

You have flame retardant chemicals in your body. Scientists are finding these chemicals, called PBDEs, in newborn babies, and the breast milk those babies drink. We Americans have the highest levels of anyone in the world. We're exposed to these chemicals every day. They're in our couches, our TVs, our cars, our office chairs, the padding beneath our carpets, and the dust in our homes. They're building up in pets, wild animals and fish. They're even in some of the foods we eat. Doctors and public health experts are worried because hundreds of peer-reviewed studies are suggesting links to neurological and developmental defects, and fertility and reproductive problems.

The Environment Report's Rebecca Williams examines our exposure to these chemicals and what it might mean for our health, the politics and policy behind our use of these chemicals, and the alternatives.


Flame retardant chemicals are used in hundreds of products in our homes and offices and schools. The chemicals can slow the spread of fire. But certain kinds of these chemicals leach out of our couches, our TVs, our carpet padding and many other things in our homes. And they're getting into our bodies. In the first of our five part series, Rebecca Williams tries to find out what's in the products in her own home.


You have flame retardant chemicals in your body. They're toxic. Americans have the highest levels of anyone in the world. The chemicals are in the dust in our homes and offices and schools. And they're showing up in our food. In the second of our five part series... Rebecca Williams takes a look at what these exposures might mean for our health.


Flame retardant chemicals are in many of the products we use. They help slow the spread of fire. But some kinds of these chemicals are building up in people and in pets and wildlife. And hundreds of studies are suggesting the chemicals could be linked to problems with brain development, and thyroid and fertility problems. In the third part of our five part series... Rebecca Williams takes a look at why our federal government has not banned them.


Flame retardant chemicals are added to hundreds of products in our homes and offices to slow the spread of fire. But during a fire, the fumes can cause problems for firefighters. In the fourth part of our five part series, Rebecca Williams reports... some firefighters say flame retardants can make their jobs more dangerous.


Flame retardant chemicals help keep foam and plastics from catching on fire. But certain kinds of these chemicals are building up in people. And hundreds of studies are suggesting links to problems with brain development, and thyroid and fertility problems. In the final part of our five part series... Rebecca Williams reports on the alternatives to these chemicals.

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We sent questions about PBDEs to the EPA and various industry groups. Click one of these names to skip to that section of responses.

American Chemistry Council
Polyurethane Foam Association
ICL-IP America

Responses from Dale Kemery, EPA

- Why did EPA pursue voluntary agreements and phase outs of penta, octa and deca-BDE? Why not pursue an outright ban on those chemicals?
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers have been an EPA concern for quite some time. In order to take regulatory action under TSCA, such as instituting a ban, EPA needs to demonstrate these chemicals present an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. To make this legal finding substantial exposure and hazard information is needed. For all these chemicals EPA was making progress towards developing information to make these findings when their manufacturer(s), with EPA's encouragement, offered to voluntarily phased them out of commerce. By taking this approach EPA saved an enormous amount of time and resources that would have been needed to take regulatory action.

- Does EPA have authority to issue a ban? If not, why not?
EPA can ban chemicals under TSCA if it can demonstrate that they present an unreasonable risk. This is a relatively high regulatory standard and requires a substantial amount of high quality exposure and hazard information. Flame retardants are particularly challenging to make this finding because their commercial benefit is that they save lives in fire situations.

- Why was Dr. Deborah Rice removed from the expert panel working on the human health assessment for PBDEs?
Scientists serving on EPA's independent peer review panels are fully vetted for any real or perceived conflicts of interest to ensure that the Agency's peer reviews are open, transparent, and of the highest quality. If a conflict of interest is determined prior to the peer review meeting, that expert is not invited to serve on the peer review panel.

- If one of the replacements for penta-BDE, chlorinated tris (TDCPP), is considered to be a "moderate cancer hazard" by EPA, why is it being allowed in consumer products such as furniture?
EPA's Furniture Flame Retardancy Partnership was convened to evaluate alternatives for pentaBDE. The purpose of the partnership was to provide information on the potential environmental and human health impacts of the alternatives to inform substitution to the safest alternatives possible.

The alternatives evaluated in the report are all associated with lower levels of concern for persistence and bioaccumulation than pentaBDE, but none of the alternatives is free from concern. One of the alternatives is associated with a moderate concern for carcinogencity based on rat studies. This level of concern does not mean the chemical causes cancer in humans, and it has not been listed as a carcinogen by an authoritative body. Additionally, if used for fire safety in flexible polyurethane furniture foam, the chemical would be encased in the foam, and exposure would therefore be reduced.

According to Consumer Product Safety Commission staff, average fire losses for 1995-1999 were 460 deaths, 1,110 injuries, and $130 million in property damage. Flame retardants in furniture, where many household fires start, delay ignition and have proven to save lives.

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Responses from the American Chemistry Council

- ACC's comments on the safety of flame retardants
Flame retardants have been rigorously tested and have saved lives. They make the products that we use every day -- electronics, household furnishings, and cars --s more fire resistant. Flame retardants have been credited with saving many lives -- including the passengers and crew of the 2005 Air France crash in Toronto.

- ACC's perspectives from a national policy level
ACC and our member companies are committed to product stewardship. We support EPA's current efforts to modernize the regulatory framework and support changes to further improve the chemicals management process. We are working with EPA to modernize TSCA and improve the ways chemicals in commerce are regulated.

- ACC's letter of May 2007
Independent scientific research is essential to advancing the understanding with which the industry, government and the public manage chemical products. Our strong support for science was the basis for ACC's letter to EPA that urged an independent peer review process based on integrity and transparency.

ACC's strong support for science was the basis for its May 2007 letter to the EPA regarding a member of the agency's external peer review panel for Polybrominated Diphenyl Esters and its support for an independent peer review process. ACC had expressed concern that the peer review panel's leadership lacked the impartiality and objectivity necessary to conduct a fair and impartial review of the data.

ACC advocated that EPA's process for selecting the Peer Review Panel for decabromodiphenyl ether (deca-BDE) had ignored EPA's own guidance by selecting Dr. Rice to participate in the panel when she had in the past expressed a bias against the product.

In September of 2008, a congressional hearing was held. ACC worked with then-Chairman Dingell and the House Energy and Commerce Committee to ensure transparency and openness in the process and we provided materials that pertained to this matter.

During the hearing, members of Congress agreed with ACC that the peer review process needed to be improved in order to protect the public and scientific integrity. Importantly, in the end, EPA found that Deborah Rice's participation created an appearance or actual lack of impartiality. According to EPA's own Inspector General Report, EPA "removed her comments from the PBDE peer review report, and published an explanatory message in the report and on the associated Website." Dr. Rice's comments were excluded from the report "due to the perception of a potential conflict of interest."

ACC and its member companies continue to support the importance of the independent peer review process.

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Responses from John Gustavsen, Chemtura

- Why did you decide to phase out penta and octa-BDE?
We ceased production in 2004 because we were able to replace them with a new generation of flame retardant chemicals with a stronger environmental profile. The replacement is not persistent or bioaccumulative yet is a highly effective way to provide flame retardant protection to foam products such as those commonly found in furniture. Flame retardants save countless lives and it is our mission to produce them in a more sustainable way while still ensuring their effectiveness in protecting people and property from the dangers of fire.

- Why are you phasing out deca?
While the scientific evidence indicates that decaBDE poses no significant risk to the environment or human health, the phase-out allows us to continue our longstanding efforts to protect people and property from the hazards of fire in a more sustainable way. The phase-out time period will ensure we can help our customers transition to existing or soon to be announced alternative products that are effective yet more in line with our commitment to produce flame retardants in a more sustainable way.

- How concerned are you that some other company would start making deca after you phased it out?
We don't see that as an issue. The phase-out is part of our support of the DecaBDE Phase-Out Initiative, announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This initiative will promote phase-out of all production, importation and sales of decaBDE in the United States. The phase-out time period will ensure we can help our customers transition to existing or soon to be announced alternatives to Deca-BDE.

- Do you manufacture alternative flame retardant chemicals? If so, which ones do you make?
Yes, we make a wide variety of flame retardants. We are one of the worlds leading producers of both Bromine-based and Phosphorous-based flame retardants, sold under the Firemaster® , Reofos® , and Kronitex® trade names.

- How confident can consumers be about the safety of the halogenated flame-retardant chemicals in the products in our homes and offices?
Halogenated flame retardants provide the most effective fire safety performance in the widest variety of applications, and are the only effective choice to provide resistance in some of the most commonly used plastics. The flame retardants we produce have been extensively studied and the scientific evidence indicates they do not pose any significant risk to the environment or human health. At the same time, we know these products are highly effective at serving their purpose which is to protect people and products from the hazards of fire. Countless lives have been saved because flame retardants are available and used in consumer products that are susceptible to fire.

- Are furniture and other products in our homes and offices that contain penta and/or octa-BDE safe to continue using?
There is no evidence we are aware of nor government actions to suggest any reason to discontinue use ofproducts containing penta and/or octa-BDE. Several jurisdictions, including the US, Canada, and EU through the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) have thoroughly considered the environmental impact ofcommercialpenta-BDE and octa-BDE products and have determined there is no need to remove goods containing those products from use.

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Response from Robert J. Luedeka, Polyurethane Foam Association

Polyurethane Foam Association (PFA) manufacturing members are dedicated to manufacturing "comfort." In the case of flexible polyurethane foam (FPF), comfort is both a physical characteristic and a state of mind. The safety of workers, the communities PFA members work within, and the consumer public are the top priority.

We try to be very responsive to media and I appreciate your interest in flexible polyurethane foam (FPF). As my hoarse voice indicates, I have been waylaid with a respiratory cold/virus. So, with respect for your audience, I hope that this written statement will provide sufficient information for your report.

I have responded to the questions where we have expertise and will defer to others who should be able to respond to questions that require professional knowledge in toxicology and application risk. In those areas, PFA is not the right resource to provide answers to your questions related to flame retardants. I would encourage you to speak directly to the American Chemistry Council and to flame retardant suppliers. Meanwhile, I will share what I can with you.

As the trade association of the flexible polyurethane foam industry, we don't have specifics about the exact flame retardant (FR) products now in use since FR selection is part of individual foam-producing member proprietary formulations. Some foam formulations may use "off the shelf" FR products and other formulations may require proprietary combinations of FR additives. FR products are supplied by companies such as ICL-IP America, Chemtura and Albemarle. In general, as you are probably aware, the current flame retardants used by US foam producers include combustion modifying additives that could generally be described as chlorinated phosphates, phosphate esters, melamine blends, and proprietary brominated compounds. None of these products are PBDEs.

However, in the US, it is also important to establish that not all flexible polyurethane foam contains flame retardants. In fact, only a portion of flexible polyurethane foams contain FR additives and those FR products are used to meet specific combustion performance objectives. FRs are added to some foams either to meet current California regulations related to furniture component flammability, or to meet specifications imposed by foam purchasers. From a residential product regulatory perspective, only California requires that all upholstered furniture filling materials (including polyurethane foam, latex, and various natural and synthetic fiberfills) meet a series of component tests that involve testing for both resistance to cigarette ignition and resistance to small open flame. A portion of California TB 117 requires that cellular filling materials such as polyurethane foam and latex foam rubber pass a 12-second small open flame exposure test. This requirement has been on the books in California since 1975. In order for a foam product to meet the small open flame requirement, combustion-modifying additives (fire retardants) are typically required.

On the other hand, in most cases, California TB117 cigarette ignition requirements for cellular filling materials can be met without the use of fire retardants. Flexible polyurethane foam performs well in this function.

The necessity for fire retardant additives does not extend to residential bedding products; not in California or anywhere in the United States. The federal CFR 1632 cigarette ignition requirement for mattresses does not require FR materials to be added to the foam. Likewise, the newer CFR 1633 open flame flammability standard for mattress sets does not require than foam products be combustion modified. The CFR 1633 open flame standard for mattress sets can be met using conventional filling products together with an ignition barrier technology applied beneath the mattress cover. Unfortunately, the same barrier technology used in mattress sets is not currently feasible in upholstered furniture.

As manufacturers of comfort products for use in home furnishings, it is important that PFA manufacturing members meet the expectations of end-product manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. Product safety is a key objective. Like all organic materials such as wood, cotton, wool, and latex foam rubber, flexible polyurethane foam will ignite and burn when exposed to a hot enough ignition source. As a result, PFA has been a long-time supporter of flammability standards for home furnishings products. In recent times, the safety of some of the technologies used to combustion modify flexible polyurethane foams and other cushion filling materials used in upholstered furniture has come into question. As a number of groups sought more information, so did PFA. In 2007, to allow time for additional research on the part of FR additive producers and regulatory groups, PFA recommended that the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation temporarily suspend the small open flame testing requirements contained in TB 117. The suggested hiatus was not provided and the continued use of fire retardants is still required to meet this California standard.

The PFA has been a major supporter of numerous fire safety initiatives since the Association was established in 1980, including early, continuing and strong support of fire-safe cigarettes legislation. We have an ongoing initiative called Proactive on Fire Prevention for members; we helped establish and fund the Fire Prevention Alliance; fund and provided leadership to the Residential Fire Sprinkler Institute; and we are partners with the United States Fire Administration on their public safety campaigns. We believe that the nationwide adoption of reduced ignition propensity cigarettes, along with use of smoke alarms and fire prevention education are the keys to reducing the number of household fires, related deaths and injuries involving furniture and bedding. According to NFPA and CPSC statistics, ignition from smoking materials is by far the leading cause of household fires involving upholstered furniture (more than 80% of deaths and 60% of injuries). By comparison, a much smaller number of deaths and injuries result from upholstered furnishings fires caused by small open flame. Again, fire retardant additives are not required to achieve smolder ignition resistance.

Related to environmental issues, PFA manufacturing members have a superb record and members are proud of their compliance records. In fact, in a number of cases, PFA members have voluntarily found ways to reach compliance long before it has been required by governmental agencies.

Our members eliminated use of CFCs in the early 1990s, well ahead of the Montreal protocol deadline. We pioneered solutions to meet NESHAP standards related to use of methylene chloride and other substances. The use of PBDEs in the manufacture of FPF was voluntarily eliminated by U.S. foam producers in 2005, in advance of individual state restrictions.

A number of years ago, we became aware of the importance of building confidence in products containing flexible polyurethane foam at the consumer level; not, just regarding possible fire retardant content, but also to address questions about the overall integrity of polyurethane foam including environmental, toxicological and indoor air quality. PFA worked with European interests and an advisory panel made up of stakeholders including academia and NGOs to develop a rigorous, third-party test and product certification program that could be voluntarily applied to polyurethane foam products manufactured anywhere in the world.

I hope that someday you'll report on the CertiPUR-US program. This industry initiative was launched in May 2008 and is now managed under the Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam, Inc. It is quickly gaining momentum. CertiPUR-US certified foams are made without ozone depleters, methylene chloride, PBDEs, or problematic heavy metals, formaldehyde or prohibited phthalates, and are low emission (low VOCs) for indoor air quality.

CertiPUR-US addresses the issue of possible fire retardant content in a scientifically responsible way. As have a number of European environmental label programs, the application for a CertiPUR label in Europe and in the United States prohibits the use of components that fall into certain European Risk Phrases of Concern. More information is available at

PFA manufacturing members also look to federally required MSDS information, the EPA, NIH, and the European REACH Risk Assessment Reports for health and safety guidance regarding the use of all raw materials used in the manufacture of flexible polyurethane foam products.

We are not aware of information from any regulatory agency that would place any of the current fire retardant chemicals used by United States foam manufacturers into any of the prohibited Risk Phrase categories. Upon additional regulatory review, should such cautionary classifications be assigned, then those chemicals would no longer be acceptable for use within the voluntary CertiPUR certification programs.

A great deal of the work I do with media relates to correcting misinformation, so I appreciate your seeking out the facts.

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Response from Joel Tenney, ICL-IP America

- Why are you phasing out deca-BDE?
Deca-BDE, one of the world's most effective and widely used flame retardants, has been the focus of controversy over the past several years in spite of extensive studies concluding that it offers no health or environmental risk. In response to the market's growing concern, the Company has taken a pro-active decision to phase out its Deca-BDE sales in the U.S. while increasing its focus on the development and marketing of other flame retardant alternatives.

- What will you/are you producing as alternatives?
DecaBDE has been an invaluable flame retardant chemical in large part due to its versatility. DecaBDE is used in a variety of plastics and textile applications. It is not easily substituted for and there won't be one chemical that takes its place. ICL-IP manufactures over 50 unique flame retardants; our product portfolio includes halogenated, phosphorous and non-halogenated materials. As we evaluate Deca-BDE alternatives we will seek to identify the best choices of the aforementioned materials and combinations thereof that meet our customer's strict criteria for functionality, sustainability and toxicological profile.

- What do we know about the safety of those alternatives?
All of ICL-IP's products go through extensive internal and external risk assessment evaluations. ICL-IP works with regulatory agencies across the world to provide the science necessary to confirm product safety. We are proud to offer products that not only reduce the risk of fires but are safe for human health and the environment. That said DecaBDE is one of the most studied flame retardants ever made. The science concerning product performance, environmental fate, and human health is unparalleled and it is in large part the reason we believe so strongly that DecaBDE is a safe product. Admittedly alternatives will not have the same extensive data set to draw on particularly as it relates to published literature. However ICL-IP, like other chemical manufacturers, has used the DecaBDE experience to build in new practices and screens in our product development that account for some of the latest safety measures.

- Can consumers be confident that the products in their homes containing deca are safe?
DecaBDE has been used as a flame retardant for over 30 years and without a doubt has contributed to public fire safety and ultimately saved lives. ICL-IP believes the large body of science supports the belief that DecaBDE is safe in use and consumers can be fully confident of that statement.

- Many scientists and public health experts are calling for non-halogenated flame retardants as replacements, saying they are safer for people and the environment. What's your position on that?
Flame retardants come in many forms; the largest classes are halogenated, non-halogenated and phosphorous. There are many applications where non-halogenated flame retardants are the best choices. It might surprise you to know the largest volume flame retardant sold, aluminum hydroxide, is a not a halogenated material. That said non-halogenated materials are simply not the solution for all applications. In our modern world we enjoy the use of many products made from materials that can easily ignite. Halogenated flame retardants have a unique functionality that provide fire protection and give manufacturers a great deal of freedom to innovate with the most modern materials of construction. Brominated flame retardants are a key halogenated product group; no other material is as efficient as bromine in satiating free radicals created during combustion, i.e it puts out the fire in the most efficient manner possible. Brominated flame retardants have and will continue to play a vital role in product designs and public safety.

- I understand that you are negotiating with the EPA for a managed phase out of Deca, do you know the timeline for this phase out?
Discussions with the EPA have resulted in a voluntary Deca phase out plan with the goal that companies will cease all production, importation, and sales of decaBDE in the United States no later than December 31, 2012 with the exception that transportation, military and related applications will be phased out December 31, 2013.

- There are several bills that have been considered by different states and some that have passed, do you anticipate this action by the EPA will replace individual state legislation?
Yes. This voluntary program is more comprehensive and complete than passed or proposed state/federal legislation. Additionally, ICL-IP's phase out emphasizes early exiting of electronic equipment applications typically specified in such bills. ICL-IP is confident this approach will satisfy the majority of stakeholders in the decaBDE debate.

- If this is a managed phase out, will all of your customers be treated equally?
ICL-IP is committed to support all of our customers in this transition phase. However, ICL-IP decided to approach the phase out based on specific categories of use. Our proposed schedule gives first priority to uses that have been the focus of state legislative initiatives concerning decaBDE.

Electrical and electronic equipment (except as used in transportation equipment) -- Dec. 31, 2010
Construction and building interior uses, furniture and furnishings -- Dec. 31, 2012
Transportation (automobiles, planes, trains, ships, certain warehousing/transportation equipment) and military applications -- Dec. 31, 2013

Of course, the pace of the phase out will vary from customer to customer. In many cases, individual users may transition to alternative materials ahead of the schedule set forth above. Our intent is to make steady progress toward a complete phase out by the end of 2012.

- I'm also interested to know what your company's response is to research by scientists at Duke and UC Berkeley among others, published in Environmental Science & Technology August 13, 2009 finding the use of TDCPP in foam in furniture purchased in the U.S. from 2003-2009. The paper states that "Studies have reported that TDCPP is mutagenic and carcinogenic in rats; it is also absorbed by humans. The Consumer Product Safety Commission considers TDCPP a probable human carcinogen while the US EPA considers it a moderate cancer hazard."

Is TDCPP safe to use in consumer products?
Without a specific reference it would be difficult to comment on a particular paper or authors work. However ICL-IP is aware of the research at Duke and UC Berkley and follows new scientific discovery with great interest. In some cases we fully believe new science and the definition of issues is helping industry make better products and to use more established products more effectively.

With respect to your question on TDCP, ICL-IP believes TDCP is safe in consumer product applications. The EU recently completed the risk assessment for TDCP; this assessment considered all publically available data included the sources you cite. TDCP is not classified as PBT or vPVB and has a low potential to bioaccumulate. For more background the EU risk assessments of TDCP are summarized below:

- TDCP: is expected to degrade in the atmosphere by reaction with hydroxyl radicals, with an estimated half-life of 21.3 hours. TDCP biodegrades very slowly in sludge and soil, it has a low potential to bioaccumulate. It poses no risk to any environmental compartment (there was a single exception relating to a manufacturing facility, no longer operating). TDCP is not a PBT nor a vPvB. Conclusion for consumer exposure is: conclusion ii (no potential risk), there was considered a data gap for female reproductive toxicity but otherwise no need for further information and/or testing.

- What do we know about the safety of TDCP?
TDCP is NOT a genotoxin. A cancer bioassay was conducted to determine if the product had carcinogenic activity. In this study, animals received daily oral doses of Fyrol FR-2 for two years. They were then sacrificed, and their tissues and organs were examined to determine whether chronic daily exposure causes an increase in the number of tumors in any organ or tissue. Microscopic examination revealed an increase in the incidence of certain types of benign tumors. However, most of these tumors occur spontaneously in aging rats, and treatment with Fyrol FR-2 seemed to have exacerbated the incidence of the benign tumors. It is important to note that essentially lifetime exposure to Fyrol FR-2, on a daily basis, did not result in a significant increase in the number of malignant tumors. Therefore the product did not demonstrate carcinogenic activity. Since the mutagenicity tests showed Fyrol FR-2 does not induce mutations, the increase in benign tumors apparently occurred via a non-genotoxic mechanism. There are many well-known chemicals that cause the development of tumors only after long term exposure to relatively high doses. Phenobarbital, saccharin, and BHT (a food additive) are well known examples.

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