Toxic flame retardants are still being used in plastics, even though there are alternatives

TV fireFlame retardant additives are put into various materials, such as foams for furniture seating and mattresses, plastics used for electronic and electrical applications, and aircraft and vehicle interiors. It became so important for people to be protected from the ravages of clothing and furniture fires, and particularly in the transportation industry, that the federal government began mandating the use of these chemicals in countless products.

The flip side is that advocacy groups such as Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and about 21 states are calling for the elimination of flame retardants, calling them “toxic.” Recently, Safer Chemicals released a study (“ TV Reality: Toxic Flame Retardants in TVs ”), which found that “TVs could be bad for your health in an unexpected way: TVs contain toxic flame-retardant chemicals that can contaminate homes.”

Testing done by Toxic-Free Future and Clean Production Action found that TV manufacturers continue to use toxic flame-retardant chemicals in their products despite evidence that the chemicals are harmful to health. Two TVs were found to contain the banned chemical flame retardant deca-BDE in apparent violation of Washington state law, where the TVs were purchased, said the press release.

The big problem that the Toxic-Free Future group has with flame retardants is that the chemicals “can escape products and end up in household dust, exposing adults and children to the chemicals through ingestion, such as through hand-to-mouth activity.”

Marc Lebel, CEO of FRX Polymers (Chelmsford, MA), a company founded on the basis of solving the two issues that surround flame retardants (FRs), told me in a very enlightening conversation the other day that “unfortunately some of these groups tend to lump everything into one category and call it ‘flame retardant.’ But within that category there are probably seven to eight different chemistries, so you have to know what you’re talking about before you begin talking about FR in plastics.”

There have been two major developments in the FR industry, noted Lebel. “First, there has been a movement away from brominated halogenated FR. These materials have been found to be toxic, but there’s a whole range of brominated FR additives, with just a handful found to be toxic,” said Lebel. “When we talk about chemical toxicity, it involves three things: Bio-accumulation in the body, which means the FR additive never leaves the body; persistence in the environment, which means it does not biodegrade; and finally, toxic to human health. Together, these chemicals are called PBT (persistant, bioaccumulative and toxic.)"

PBT chemicals typically are small molecules that can migrate out of the host material. In some cases, they could be the flame retardants, but not only those chemicals, Lebel noted. “Because of those issues, in 2006 four of those brominated [halogen-containing] FR families were banned in Europe and the movement has since gone global,” he said. “Halogen-free FR is the direction in which the industry is moving.”

Secondly, Lebel explained, there is a more recent trend toward polymeric versus small-molecule flame retardants. The former are seen as environmentally friendly, because if you formulate a plastic with an inherently flame-retardant polymer—making it an inherent

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