Flame retardants come under EPA scrutiny

Twenty flame retardants are on a list of chemicals that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin assessing, the agency has announced.

No word on how long this will take, but the goal is “to more fully understand any potential risks to people’s health and the environment,” the agency said in a press release.

Recent studies have found toxic flame retardant chemicals in everyday household items, such as upholstered furniture and computer housing, plus children’s nap mats and other products.

Evidence that these chemicals are harmful has been mounting. Some of them are toxic and have been linked to cancer, developmental delays and neurological effects.

They also persist in the environment -- they've been found in fish, birds, waterways from the coast of New Jersey to the Antarctic.

Flame retardants were supposed to be beneficial, of course. They were supposed to make products flame resistant. But now officials, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission, contend they don’t really work as intended.

Citizens might reasonably wonder why flame retardants were allowed onto the marketplace, or why they’re still on the marketplace, given the concerns.

There’s a law — the Toxic Substances Control Act, better known as TSCA. But EPA officials and others have testified before Congressional committees that it is outdated and weak.

Under the current provisions, the EPA can call for safety testing only after evidence surfaces demonstrating a chemical is dangerous.

About 80,000 chemicals are in use in the U.S., and EPA has been able to require testing for about 200 of them. Five have subsequently been banned.

New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, has made TSCA reform a prime focus of his final years in office, and his office said he plans to introduce new legislation in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, he released a statement about the EPA action:

“The evidence is building that flame retardants are threatening the health of our children and families in their own homes, and I am proud to see the EPA taking steps to better evaluate the risks from these substances. Unfortunately, the EPA remains severely limited under existing law and is unable to fully address the risks revealed by its assessments.

“We must reform our broken chemical laws if we ever hope to truly protect American families from dangerous chemicals. We will continue working to pass new laws to ensure that every chemical that comes into contact with a child has been proven safe.”

Among the other chemicals the EPA will study is 1,4 dioxane, a suspected carcinogen that is found in laundry detergents.

In January, Proctor & Gamble agreed in a California court to significantly reduce the levels of 1,4 dioxane in Tide and Tide Free & Gentle.

In announcing the agency action, James J. Jones, Acting assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said that while it “represents a significant step forward on chemical safety, it’s important to remember that TSCA, this country’s chemicals management legislation, remains in dire need of reform in order to ensure that all Americans are protected from toxic chemicals in their environment.”