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EWG Lab Test, HBO Documentary Highlight Toxic Risk of Fire Retardants

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Today (Nov. 13) in Seattle, HBO will screen a disturbing new documentary, The Toxic Hot Seat, that highlights the growing risk to firefighters – and the general public – of fire retardant chemicals that have long been added to furniture and other consumer products as a result of deceptive chemical industry lobbying.

This is an issue that Environmental Working Group has studied for more than a decade, and it became the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation last year by The Chicago Tribune newspaper. The broader story is that you don’t have to be a firefighter who regularly plunges into the toxic inferno of roaring fires to become contaminated with fire retardants. We all are.

The HBO film features San Francisco firefighter Karen Kerr Stone, who began to worry about the toxic risks that she and her colleagues face in their already dangerous work after one of them died of breast cancer. Stone discovered that as a group, the city’s 40-to-50-year-old female firefighters had six times the average rate of the disease. She also became aware of research showing that many fire retardant chemicals regularly turn up in most people’s bodies, and, in particular, in the breast milk of nursing mothers.

As the mother of two young children herself, Stone began to wonder if her body and her milk had contained toxic fire retardants when she was nursing. To find out, EWG offered to have her milk tested to find out whether it was tainted with polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which were added to upholstered furniture and electronics for decades before being mostly phased out due to safety concerns.

The answer, unfortunately, was yes.

EWG sent two samples of Karen’s breast milk, one collected when her son was six weeks old and the other when he was 16 months, to a laboratory for analysis. The lab tested her milk for 40 types of PDBEs and found 28 of them in the two samples.

There is, in fact, mounting evidence that firefighters have higher levels of chemicals in their bodies than the general population does. Two recent studies in San Francisco and southern California reported higher concentrations of PBDEs and other chemicals in the bodies of firefighters. But the larger reality is that we’re all at risk from a wide variety of fire retardants that have undergone little or no safety tasting.

Under pressure from EPA, industry began phasing out PBDE’s in 2006, and many states and other nations have banned them. Nevertheless they have been detected in nearly every person tested in the U.S. Moreover, a groundbreaking study conducted by EWG in 2008 showed that children may be at higher risk than adults. That study of 20 mothers and their 1-to-4-year-old children, found that the levels of PBDE were an average of three times higher in the children’s blood than in their mothers’.

The story of PBDEs is a cautionary tale about the inadequacy of the nation’s chemical and fire safety laws. In the late 1990s Swedish researchers noticed an odd chemical in samples of breast milk, and after some investigation they concluded that the chemicals were PBDE fire retardants. EWG, the first to investigate PBDEs in American mothers’ milk, found in a 2003 report that PBDE levels were 75 times higher in American mothers than in Swedish ones.

The main culprit turned out to be an outdated California law that led many manufacturers to add huge quantities of PBDEs to the polyurethane foam used to make couches and other upholstered furniture, including baby products. PBDEs made up 5 percent of the weight of the foam. California Governor Jerry Brown cited EWG's 2008 study last year when he instructed officials to overhaul the state’s guidelines for fire retardants.

Research has shown that PBDE exposures are particularly toxic during pregnancy and childhood. American children with higher PBDE exposures score worse on tests of learning and attention, and these deficits appear to persist through childhood. Other studies have found that exposure to PBDEs during gestation alters children’s behavior and affects their thyroid hormones. Research has also shown that women with higher PBDE levels take longer to get pregnant. (Despite the presence of PBDEs in breast milk, EWG encourages all mothers to breastfeed their children when possible; the benefits outweigh concerns about contaminants.)

These and other findings finally pressured industry and regulators to take PBDEs off the market, but this doesn’t mean that firefighters – or the rest of us – are out of harm’s way. PBDEs have been replaced by a newer generation of chemical fire retardants, and many scientists and advocates are concerned that these products are also unhealthy.

As a nation, we’re stuck on this toxic merry-go-round for two reasons. First, the main federal law regulating toxic chemicals, the Toxics Substances Control Act, does not protect consumers from harmful chemical exposures. Second, fire safety laws encourage manufacturers to use chemical fire retardants rather than other measures to reduce the risk of fire. Many fire safety experts now say that the chemicals, as they are used today, actually do little to protect people from fire.

The fact that Karen Kerr Stone and most Americans have fire retardants our bodies and in breast milk should be a call to action. The desire to protect people from fires shouldn’t continue to come with toxic side effects for firefighters or the rest of us. 

The Toxic Hot Seat will debut nationally on Monday, Nov. 25, exclusively on HBO.

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