Nudged to abandon one harmful flame resistant chemical compound, industry flocked to another that may be no better, and scientists are concerned.
Excerpt: A generation ago, environmentalists felt vindicated when a notorious class of flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, was targeted by state and federal agencies for eventual phase-out. While used by industry to make furniture, upholstery, electrical equipment, electronic devices, textiles, and other household products fire resistant, a growing list of studies had linked these chemicals to significant health problems and highlighted their ubiquity in the environment, with traces of the compounds in everything from breastmilk to household dust. In response, manufacturers agreed to voluntarily phase them out — and to replace them with materials thought to be safer.
Now, however, the replacement flame retardants are raising new concerns — both for their environmental pervasiveness and for suspected health risks of their own. They are known as organophosphate flame retardants, and according to one study published in February, their use has skyrocketed over the past 15 years, leading to human exposure levels that are even higher than they were for PBDEs at their peak.
Researchers have found high levels of organophosphates in air and water samples from around the world, from Lake Michigan to the Arctic. The far-flung signs of contamination — from remote environments to urban centers — are raising new alarm within the scientific community.
“We know everyone is exposed to organophosphate flame retardants,” said Heather Stapleton, a Duke University professor, who has been studying flame retardant chemicals for more than a decade. “We know children have higher exposure than adults, and that exposure is higher than it was for PBDEs.”
In response, researchers are putting renewed emphasis on learning more about the impact these compounds may have on the environment and human health. There are already hints of trouble that some of the substitute flame retardants should be considered suspected carcinogens and that others may negatively affect neurodevelopment and fertility.
A review published last year, for example, suggested that organophosphate flame retardants could in fact pose comparable health risks to the brominated materials that they’ve replaced. Such toxic effects aren’t entirely a surprise as the formula for these phosphorus-based flame retardants is related to that used to create some notably risky organophosphate pesticides, from parathion to chlorpyrifos. And they also reinforce a growing worry that we’ve simply replaced one class of long-lasting and problematic flame retardants with another.
“There’s a little bit of a bait-and-switch going on here with flame retardant chemicals,” said Robin Dodson, research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, a nonprofit public health research organization. Dodson says she doubts the need for much more study: “We already have enough information to think that these are bad actors and we need to get them out.”