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Peanut Butter, Pajamas and Power

Monday, June 25, 2012

My kids eat more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches than I'd like to admit. And in my line of work I hear about toxic chemicals daily so it takes a lot to shock me. But, flame retardants in peanut butter? Even I paused when I saw the headline about a recent study that found that flame retardants - that stuff that's slathered on kids' pajamas, sofa foam and upholstery ostensibly to protect us from fires--are showing up in sardines, poultry and yes, even peanut butter.

The culprit identified in peanut butter is HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane), a brominated flame retardant, which is often used in construction and furniture foam and to coat textiles. It's a target of a proposed ban in the European Union. While scientists found this specific chemical in peanut butter, the whole class of brominated flame retardants has become a serious environmental problem.

We don't want our PB and J sandwiches to be fireproof

The disturbing fact is that flame retardants are everywhere - in our bodies, in our babies, household dust, whales and pretty much every living thing on this planet. The Environmental Working Group's landmark 2004 study of umbilical cord blood conclusively documented in utero exposure to PBDEs (poly brominated diphenyl ethers), another type of flame retardants, in all the samples we tested. In 2005, EWG tested the breast milk of 20 first-time mothers and detected flame retardants at levels 75 times the average found in European studies. Some of the breast milk we examined had among the highest levels of these chemicals detected worldwide. When EWG tested toddlers in 2008, we found up to 11 different types of flame retardants in their bodies, and on average, the children had levels of flame retardants more than three times greater than their parents.

These chemicals are in us, but what does that mean? Through laboratory animal studies, scientists have determined that the PDBE family of flame retardants can disrupt reproductive hormones, decrease sperm quality and disturb normal thyroid function. A recent Duke University study of Firemaster 550, the next generation of brominated flame retardants, on baby rats that were fed flame retardants indicates that these types of chemicals could act as obesogens and prompt early puberty. The only certainty is that we don't know the long-term, cumulative impact of these chemicals on our kids' health and the environment.

So how did we get to the point where a chemical designed to protect us from fire hazards ends up contaminating everything in the biosphere? The answer is twofold: our outdated federal toxics law and the power of the chemical industry lobby. The Toxics Substances Control Act of 1976, which deemed more than 62,000 chemicals manufactured before 1976 as safe, is so weak that it doesn't require pre-market testing of chemicals used in consumer products. Furthermore, once this class of flame retardants is taken off the market the public will not necessarily have any idea about the identity and safety profile of the new alternative.

In a must-read investigative series called Playing with Fire, the Chicago Tribune details how the tobacco and chemical industries worked together to convince fire officials of the importance of flame retardants and to urge legislators to require the use of flame retardants in a vast array of consumer goods - computers, clothing, car seats, foam. The result was wide adoption of state flammability standards to protect people from fire. Many of these chemicals are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic. Some scientists have determined they do not actually protect against fires. Yet the chemical industry has spent, by one estimate, at least $23.2 million in California alone lobbying against state legislative efforts to limit people's exposures to flame retardants . This powerful lobbying machine successfully pressured the Obama administration to delay approving EPA's "chemicals of concern " plan to make regulation of certain classes of flame retardants a priority.

Brown's action on flame retardants protects public health

That's why California Gov. Jerry Brown's announcement last week that he would direct state agencies "to revise [the 40 year-old] flammability standards for upholstered furniture sold in the state" was such good news. This directive requires state agencies to take a second look at old state regulations that call for companies to douse many consumer products with flame retardants. With this bold action, California becomes the first state to re-evaluate these antiquated flammability standards that have led to widespread pollution of our bodies and the environment.

We need more leaders like Brown to take decisive action to protect us from flame retardants. California is such a critical market that Brown's decision will make a significant impact in the flame retardant industry. We've had victories in the past with one-by-one voluntary phase-outs or bans of specific flame retardants. But until average citizens use their power to demand reform to the underlying federal toxic law that allows these untested chemicals onto the market place, we'll have to deal with more of the same. More unknown chemicals used in consumer products will continue to show up in our food, our bodies, our air, our water and our homes.

As I write this blog, I am sitting on my sofa. My kids are upstairs sleeping in their pajamas. I'm getting ready to pack their lunches for tomorrow. I can't help but notice the likely flame retardant-laden dust bunnies in the corner of the living room. I do all I can to avoid flame retardants but I cannot shop my way out of exposure.

Still I will rest a little easier knowing California is moving in the right direction to protect kids from these persistent toxic chemicals.


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