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  • Kevin Elliott

Fire retardants: human health complications

According to a 2009 study by scientists at the University of Michigan and Duke University, dust from the cushions of some couches and other furniture may be linked to decreased sperm counts and other health issues. The study, "House Dust Concentrations of Organophosphate Flame Retardants in Relation to Hormone Levels and Semen Quality Parameters," sounds as if it could be the setup to an article for the satirical news site, The Onion. It's not.

In fact, scientists conducting the study analyzed house dust from the homes of 50 men recruited through an infertility clinic in Massachusetts and found significant relationships between the chemicals and reproductive and thyroid hormone levels, as well as semen quality.

The findings? A decline of about 19 percent in sperm concentrations in homes where certain flame retardants were found in the dust.

"We found evidence that concentrations of OP (organophosphate) flame retardants in house dust may be associated with altered hormone levels and decreased sperm concentrations," the authors of the study concluded. "More research is needed to determine the extent and sources of human exposure to OP flame retardants and associated effects on human health."

The research is one of dozens of studies into a laundry list of health complications in adults and children linked to flame retardants commonly added to furniture cushions, home electronics casings and other consumer products. The health problems include reproductive issues, as well as fetal/child development, metabolism, decreased intelligence and other issues.

"Often the effects you would see are hard to see in an individual. You can't always prove that Johnny's thyroid cancer was caused by flame retardants, but you can see it in a shift in the population," said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program. "It's going to be hard to say cancer or low testosterone is specifically due to a flame retardant, but you can look at a population. It's a hard concept."

Similar studies have shown such strong connections that in September of 2017, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission approved a petition to begin the process of banning some toxic flame retardants in household products..

"To protect consumers from the potential toxic effects of exposure to these chemicals, the commission recommends that manufacturers of children's products, upholstered furniture sold for use in residences, mattresses (and mattress pads), and plastic casings surrounding electronics refrain from intentionally adding non-polymeric, organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs) to their products," the commission said. "Further, the commission recommends that, before purchasing such products for resale, importers, distributors and retailers obtain assurances from manufacturers that such products do not contain OFRs. Finally, the commission recommends that consumers, especially those who are pregnant or with young children, inquire and obtain assurances from retailers that such products do not contain OFRs."

At the heart of the issue is a group of fire retardant chemicals added to foam furniture cushions and electronics intended to slow the spread of fire. As the cushions break down over time, the chemicals separate from the furniture and enter the air as dust. Once inhaled by humans, the chemicals bioaccumulate in our bodies and remain there for ages. And, because the chemicals travel in dust, they are commonly found in homes, as well as far reaches of the globe, with traces of the chemicals found everywhere from polar bears in the arctic to urban environments.

OFRs, also referred to as halogenated flame retardants, typically are added to foams, textiles and polymers before, during or after production in theory to improve their resistance to fire. Yet, because the fire retardants aren't chemically bound to the substrate, they may be released and lead to potential human and environmental exposure.

The commission's action was taken in response to a petition filed in 2015 by a coalition of consumer advocates and health professionals to declare four categories of consumer products containing OFRs to be "banned hazardous substances" under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.

Included in the petition to the commission were important groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer's Union, Green Science Policy Institute, the International Association of Firefighters, Kids in Danger, Worksafe and others. In their petition, the groups claimed that due to the inherent physical-chemical properties, OFRS, among other things, are toxic, migrate widely out of products regardless of how the products are used, bioaccumulate and present a serious public health concern. The commission voted in September 2017 to grant the petition to initiate the rule making process.

Under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act rule-making process, the commission must convene a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel to study the effects of OFRs as a class of chemicals on consumers' health.

"In the meantime, based on the overwhelming scientific evidence presented to the commission to date, the commission has serious concerns regarding the potential toxicity of OFRs and the risk of exposure, particularly to vulnerable populations, to OFRS, from the four categories of products listed in this petition," the commission stated. "Accordingly, the commission requests that manufacturers of children's products, furniture, mattresses and electronics casings eliminate the use of such chemicals in these products."

"This is historical for government to do something like this," Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Policy Institute, said about the commission's decision. "We use a 'class concept' to get people to think about whole families of chemicals, so we don't go from one chemical to a cousin chemical. It may be a different way of solving the problem."

Blum first got involved in battling fire retardants in the 1970s, when she learned chlorinated tris, another fire retardant that was later used in furniture, was being used in children's pajamas. While she successfully battled to have that chemical removed from children's clothing, it later showed up again in furniture.

"This is the first example of the government doing something like that," Blum said of the Consumer Protection Safety Commission's decision.

The chemical industry has pushed the use of flame retardant additives as a means to save lives. However, the author of a study used for decades to support their claim said his data has been grossly misrepresented by the chemical industry, and today says in practice, the flame retardants do little to nothing to actually slow the spread of fire.

While some of the chemicals have been out of use by furniture manufacturers for more than a decade, alternative fire retardants from the same and similar classes of chemicals have been linked to the same health risks, resulting in a perpetual game of "whack-a-mole," with new hazards popping up as fast as the old ones can be stamped out.

"These are chemicals that essentially are never going to go away," Birnbaum said. "If you bought a couch prior to 2000-something, you might have pentaBDE in it, and a lot of other flame retardants, too. When they stopped making that, they started making others."

"I remember the head of Great Lakes Chemical Corporation saying when they recognized it was a problem that they wouldn't sell it when they had a substitute... it's the whole whack-a-mole game, where it goes from one commercial product that has problems to something else that has less evidence of problems... There are so many new ones (chemicals) that are made all the time, we can't keep up by doing detailed testing of everything. It's not possible. There are new ones all the time."

While used in different formulas and marketed under various names, the chemicals used in most furniture and electronics casings over the past decade fall under the class of non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs). The chemicals were developed as an alternative to brominated diphenyl ehters (BDE) additives such as pentaBDE, DecaDBE, OctaDBE and others, many which ceased being manufactured in the mid-2000s due to health concerns. If chemistry and use of the products sound confusing, it's because they are.

"I can remember buying a new mattress a few years ago, and I told the salesman I needed to know if there were BDEs in the mattress. He didn't know, but he would find out. He called later and was very happy to tell me there was none. But, he had no information on other flame retardants," Birnbaum said. "That's the problem we have as a society. We don't have full information when we go to buy something."

Chemist Heather Stapleton at Duke University, who worked on the 2009 study, was one of the first scientists to discover human exposure to flame retardants can come from contaminated household dust, said she first became interested in the issue while researching PCBs and flame retardants in fish from Lake Michigan. She later created a standard reference for house dust.

"There's been interest in exposure to lead paint in house dust," she said. "Basically, we look at dust from vacuum bags. We analyzed it for fire retardants and were shocked at how high the responses were – they were off my calibration curve."

Stapleton went on to look at other issues tied to dust, with some of her most recent work looking into exposure to children. Through her work at Duke University, Stapleton allows people to send in samples of furniture foam to be tested for flame retardants. The process, which began in 2014, allows consumers to have a better idea of the fire retardants in their home, and for the scientists to build a database of flame retardants being used.

First required to be added to furniture in 1975 by the state of California, flame retardant chemicals were added to furniture for decades. However, it was later discovered that the chemicals were migrating out of the cushions and into indoor and outdoor environments, most commonly in the form of dust.

Under the original California law, manufacturers were required to test for flammability by exposing uncovered furniture foam to a candle-like flame for 12 seconds without igniting. In order to pass the test, furniture manufacturers found it easiest to add flame retardants to the foam. With one of the largest furniture markets in the country, furniture manufacturers tailored all of their furniture to meet the California standard.

Fire retardants first on the market were polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which included decaBDE, OctaBDE and pentaBDEs and others, most of which are no longer in use due to health concerns.

In 2004, Michigan passed two laws regarding PBDE's, which together prohibited the manufacture or distribution of products or materials containing more than one-tenth of one percent of octaBDE or pentaBDE, as of June 1, 2006.

"We had worked on other legislation together – mercury and other things – and some scientists were building a case on the potential harm from PBDEs and how prevalent they were in homes, and because they were being found in people's blood, as well as the impacts on brain development, especially on young children," former Republican Michigan legislator Chris Kolb said of his work on the law, along with former state senator Patricia Birkholz.

Knowing what flame retardants are present in a foam is challenging for multiple reasons. Most furniture doesn't include labels that inform consumers what fire retardants may be added to the foam. Further, even when product names are given, such as Firemaster 550 or Firemaster 600, the formulations of the fire retardants are kept hidden as trade secrets within the industry. That means despite regulations on some flame retardants, it's hard for consumers to know what they are actually purchasing.

"From a consumer's point of view, it's frustrating that you can't look at a product and tell if a flame retardant is in there or not. And, you can't tell which one because a lot of it is considered trade secretes," she said.

Kolb, who today serves as president of the Michigan Environmental Council, said the issue is similar to problems with PFOS, a type of flame suppression foam used at airports and military airbases in Michigan and throughout the country that has been linked to severe health issues.

Despite a push for deregulation today, Kolb said there is still concern over compounds that bioaccumulate in the body and remain in the environment for a long time.

"There is still a case to be made on certain compounds when you can show a direct impact on the citizens in Michigan," he said. "If you go back to PFOS, you're seeing potential health impacts. If you do it right and do the right education, you can still get stuff done."

Today, at least a dozen states have laws regarding flame retardants added to furniture foam, including California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

In August of 2003, the European Union adopted a directive that bans the marketing and use of penta and octaBDE in all consumer products. Also in 2003, California enacted legislation prohibiting a person from manufacturing, processing or distributing in commerce a product or flame-retarded part of a product containing more than .1 percent pentaBDE or octaBDE, by mass, beginning January 1, 2008.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), studies worldwide have found pentaBDE to be widespread in the environment and in human tissues. As such, pentaBDE was voluntarily phased out of use by 2005. Since then, the most widely used flame retardant for furniture and other consumer products has been a formulation named Firemaster 550.

While the new chemical was supposed to provide the added fire safety without the same threats as previously used chemicals, the ingredients were hidden for years due to its protected status as a trade secret. Working with another chemist in California, samples found there were matched with one provided by Chemtura for analysis.

“There is no timeline or cap on how long they can keep these (ingredients) confidential," Duke’s Stapleton said, who said consumers should have the right to know what chemicals they are being exposed to. "Particularly parents, they have the right to know if there are cancer-causing agents in the mattresses their children are sleeping on, and the law prevents that from being disclosed. It's unfortunate."

In 2014, California's updated fire prevention law went into effect, altering the 12-second flame standard. Under the new legislation, ignition tests may use a smoldering source of heat, such as a cigarette, essentially eliminating the need for furniture manufacturers to use fire retardant additives in foam. Under the new law, furniture is tested for smoldering resistance of cover fabrics, barrier materials, filling materials and decking materials used in upholstered furniture in the state.

Since the new law was enacted in California, Stapleton said the percent of residential furniture tested that has flame retardants in it has dropped from about 80 percent to about 20 percent. However, she said exposure to the chemicals could be higher in furniture produced for public use, such as schools, universities, libraries, theaters and other public areas, which must meet different fire codes.

In November 2017, U.S. Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-VA) introduced "The Safer Occupancy Furniture Flammability Act," which would require the Consumer Product Safety Commission to adopt California's law as a federal flammability standard.

"I was pleased to introduce this legislation creating a clear federal standard on furniture flammability," Griffith said in a statement. "If enacted, furniture manufacturers would continue to make safe products without worrying about a tangle of varying state regulations."

The American Home Furnishings Alliance, a trade association representing more than 230 leading furniture manufacturers and distributors, backs the bill. The association in 2015 formally petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to adopt the performance standards and test methods used in California as national standards.

The International Association of Firefighters has also urged the CPSC to ban products that contain organohalogens, which have been linked to heightened levels of cancer among firefighters.

"Firefighters dying from occupational-related cancers now account for more than half of our members' line-of-duty deaths each year," Pat Morrison, the association's assistant to the general president for occupational health, safety and medicine said in testimony before the commission. "This is the largest health-related issue facing the firefighting profession."

Morrison said setting standards and passing regulations must work in tandem as the chemical industry has a history of skirting chemical bans by making slight, inconsequential changes and renaming products.

Bryan Goodman, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council's North American Flame Retardant Alliance said while there has been a great deal of progress made over the last several decades, fire remains a major threat to life and property. In fact, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, based on data from 2014, Michigan had an annual average of 5.5 residential fire-related deaths per 1,000 people in the state.

"The materials used in upholstered furniture can be a major fuel source during fires, which is why it is important that flame resistant materials are used in these products," he said in a statement to Downtown newsmagazine "Indeed, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that there are, on average ever year, 4,700 fires, 390 deaths, 660 injuries, and $238 million in property losses attributed to incidents where upholstered furniture was the first item ignited. The commission also indicated that these numbers are likely an underestimate.

"Flame retardants can play an important role in fire safety by stopping or slowing the spread of fire and providing people with valuable escape time when fires occur. And like most chemicals, flame retardants are subject to rigorous review by U.S. EPA and other regulatory agencies around the world. In 2016, the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act was enacted, which significantly strengthened EPA's chemical oversight. So Michiganders do not have to choose between chemical safety and fire safety. They can have both."

In Oakland County, upholstered sofas, chairs and vehicle seats accounted for 10.74 percent of all the first items ignited in fires in 2016, according to records provided by Michigan's state fire marshal's office. Appliance housing and casings accounted for 23.14 percent of first items in 2016, while bedding was the first item that ignited in 13.22 percent of fires in the county. Those county numbers have held fairly steady over the past decade, with upholstered sofas, chairs and vehicle seats accounting for 10.14 percent of the first items ignited in 2010; and 14.81 percent of first items in 2005.

Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik said firefighters are typically concerned with how fast a fire spreads and how hot it burns, which he said typically relates to the materials that have been ignited.

"We know that certain materials, typically synthetics, have a faster flame spread than a natural fiber. That does make a difference to firefighters, especially because of modern construction with pre-engineered trusses and floor systems that fail quicker in a fire than the old standard lumber," Cieslik said. "With newer materials, which can cause the fire to spread faster, they typically burn at a higher rate, and a higher BTU, which is heat.

"Anytime furnishings can be made with safely with a fire retardant – I'm not a chemist, so we have to be cautious about materials people use for fire retardants, so they don't cause a carcinogenic issue for people in homes, which could outweigh risk of fire... asbestos, for instance, was good for fire insulation, but we found out that it causes lung cancer when it becomes airborne. We rely on chemists to test it so it doesn't have long-term medical effects."

Rochester Hills Fire Department Safety Educator Nancy Butty also said modern synthetics give off more harmful gasses when they burn. From a firefighting standpoint, those products create an added danger to firefighters. "It's after the fire that the product is such a danger to firefighters who are there and the investigators after the fact," she said.

Rather than looking at the first item ignited, Butty said the cause of fires remains the same over the years.

"The number one reason we have fires is cooking, then smoking, electrical and candles. Those are all removed from the furniture itself," she said, saying that the use of fire retardants doesn't stop fires in itself. "It's a good idea in theory, but when looking at the whole picture, I don't think it's very effective. When you look at making fire safer, that retardant is after the fact – after the fire happened – so we need to look at what we can do to prevent that fire from happening. That's a change in behavior."

Birgitte Messerschmidt, director of applied research for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), said furniture continues to be a major part of the fire problem, again honing in on the synthetic materials they contain.

"The cushions are mostly made of PUR foam and the coverings can be either natural or synthetic fabrics," she said. "Recognizing the ease of ignition and potential fast fire growth in modern furniture; flammability requirements have been introduced in among other places, California and the UK. California has since changed their test method for furniture, but still require that furniture has to withstand a smoldering cigarette. There is however, a concern that testing with an open flame is also needed and hence a standard for open flame testing of furniture is under development here at the NFPA.

"In order to reduce further the role furniture plays in the fire problem, it is necessary to address how furniture reacts when exposed to ignition and how the fire can be controlled after it starts. The first can be addressed by changes in furniture design and materials and the latter by introducing home sprinklers. This in addition to the use of the fire safe cigarette. As with all dimensions of the fire problem, no one fire safety strategy will solve the upholstered furniture fire safety problem. A combination of smoke alarms, sprinklers, fire safe furniture and fire safe cigarettes will have an impact."

Birnbaum, with the National Institutes of Health, warned that some fire protection organizations pushing for a return to an older standard for flame testing furniture have been lobbied by the chemical industry in order to push the use of flame retardants.

For instance, a series of stories into the issue by the Chicago Tribune found a now defunct organization, Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, was actually a front for the industry in order to push for the use of flame retardants. Further, the series revealed some of the science used to promote flame retardants as a way to slow the spread of fire were grossly misrepresented.

One of those studies was conducted by Vytenis Babrauskas, who had conducted testing of furniture with fire retardant additives in 1988 for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Barbrauskas has since said his findings were misrepresented by the chemical industry for years without his knowledge.

While Babrauskas said fire retardants may slow the spread of fires in theory, the use in residential consumer products does nothing to slow fires in reality.

In his tests, Babrauskas said the flame retardant furniture used was all packed with extra flame retardants. For instance, cushions typically have a density of 16 to 29 kg per cubic meter, while the furniture tested was stuffed to about 64 kg per cubic meter, which he equated to NASA quality materials. Further, he said all furniture used in the study had flame retardant additives, while an actual home has a mix of furniture.

In a real use setting, he said flame retardants do "absolutely nothing." Further, he said there is an attempt to rollback California's law to require the use of dangerous flame retardants, which includes an attack by the chemical industry on the NFPA, a volunteer organization.

"It's the worst of both possible worlds," Babrauskas said. "It's not doing anything in real tests and fires, but it's also introducing a toxic substance into the environment.

"You can make NASA type materials if you're building a space craft, and you can make a chair that basically can't burn, but that's usually a different grade of polymer and plastic that is 10 times as expensive than what you and I are going to buy at a furniture store. It's not a viable solution to the civilian sector." ­

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