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Flame retardants are under fire

Synthetic chemicals added to consumer products to meet federal and state flammability standards are showing up in waterways, wildlife and even human breast milk.

Studies in laboratory animals and humans have linked the most scrutinized flame retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, to thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, advanced puberty and reduced fertility. Other flame retardants have been linked to cancer.

At the same time, recent studies suggest that the chemicals may not effectively reduce the flammability of treated products.

The potential risks of flame retardants have been known for some time. In 1977, one type was banned from use in children’s pajamas after researchers showed that it could damage DNA in animals. Two PBDEs were pulled from the U.S. market in 2004. But another chemical that was removed from pajamas decades ago based on evidence that it could mutate DNA is still being used in furniture and some other baby products.

The flame retardants commonly found in consumer goods routinely escape as vapor or airborne particles. Friction and heat generated through normal use of a product can accelerate their release.

They can also escape during production or when treated products are recycled or disposed of in landfills or incinerators. Once released, they can build up in sewage sludge, soil and sediments.

In February, 23 U.S. senators sent a letter urging the EPA to determine whether flame retardants in consumer products put Americans, and especially children, at risk.

In March, the EPA announced that it will start evaluating the health and environmental risks of 20 flame retardants still on the market. ICL Industrial Products America, a major manufacturer of flame retardants, welcomed the EPA’s decision to review the chemicals.