Packed by the pound into couches and other furniture, the chemical was turning up in the blood of babies and in breast milk around the world. The European Union voted to ban penta after researchers linked it to developmental and neurological problems in children, and manufacturers pulled it from the market.
The new product even had a heroic name: Firemaster 550.
TheU.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to safeguard America's health and environment, praised the withdrawal of penta as a "responsible action" and promised that the new flame retardant had none of the problems of the old one. Unlike penta, Firemaster 550 would neither stick around in the environment nor build up in people and wildlife, a top EPA official declared in a 2003 news release.
Not everyone at the EPA believed that rosy public assessment. Documents obtained by the Tribune show that scientists within the agency were deeply skeptical about the safety of Firemaster 550, predicting that its chemical ingredients would escape into the environment and break down into byproducts that would pose lasting health hazards.
Behind the scenes, agency officials asked the manufacturer to conduct basic health studies, citing the same concerns that forced penta off the market.
Today, in sharp contrast to the promises of industry and government, chemicals in the flame retardant are being found everywhere from house dust in Boston to the air in Chicago. There also are signs the chemicals are building up in wildlife, prompting concern that Firemaster 550 or its byproducts could be accumulating in people.
The manufacturer's own health studies, obtained by the Tribune, add to that troubling picture. They found that exposing rats to high doses of Firemaster 550 can lower birth weight, alter female genitalia and cause skeletal malformations such as fused ribs and vertebrae.
The history of Firemaster 550, pieced together through records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, highlights how EPA officials have allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without thoroughly assessing health risks.
The previously unreleased documents also show how the nation's chemical safety law, the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, gives the government little power to assess or limit dangers from the scores of chemicals added to furniture, electronics, toys, cosmetics and household products.
At a time when consumers clamor for more information about their exposure to toxic substances, the chemical safety law allows manufacturers to sell products without proving they are safe and to treat the formulas as trade secrets. Once health effects are documented, the law makes it almost impossible for the EPA to ban chemicals.
A growing list of critics — including the nation's leading group of pediatricians and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress — are calling for a sweeping overhaul of the law. Some compare the situation to Whac-A-Mole, the carnival game where plastic moles keep popping out of holes even after a player smacks one down.
"By the time the scientific community catches up to one chemical, industry moves on to another and they go back to their playbook of delay and denial," said Deborah Rice, a former EPA toxicologist who works for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Chemtura Corp., the Philadelphia-based company that makes Firemaster 550, said in a statement that the flame retardant is safe for use in polyurethane foam, the kind often used in furniture. The company also said the studies that found Firemaster 550's chemical ingredients in homes and wildlife don't prove that those compounds came from its product.
Introducing Firemaster 550 "was an early example of our strategy of Greener Innovation and the success it could have, even under significant EPA scrutiny," the company said.
Nevertheless, the EPA is now concerned enough that in February it targeted two of Firemaster 550's key ingredients for a "high priority" review, citing potential health hazards and widespread exposure from household products.
"We didn't think it would bioaccumulate, but it turns out that prediction isn't borne out by reality," Jim Jones, the EPA's top chemical safety official, said in an interview. "We want to make sure we understand it and that nothing bad is going to happen."
Solving a mystery