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Flame retardant chemicals are toxic — and everywhere

In a serious case of unintended consequences, flame retardant chemicals were added to children’s pajamas in the ‘70s to try to reduce deaths from house fires. They were later banned in pajamas by the federal government after they were found to cause cancer.

Yet these chemicals have since become ubiquitous in products in our homes from couches and mattresses to nursing pillows and baby changing pads. For decades, the chemical industry marketed them to manufacturers as lifesaving, and even supported legal requirements that they be added to consumer products. Fortunately, these laws and regulations have almost all been repealed.

Unfortunately, in addition to being toxic, these chemicals are not effective at reducing harm from fire and can make fires more dangerous. They are putting our firefighters and families at risk.

When toxic flame retardants escape from products they bind with dust and accumulate in our bodies. Children are at high risk due to frequent hand-to-mouth behaviors and increased contact with dust on floors, couches and other surfaces. In addition to cancer, these chemicals have been linked to a host of other harmful health effects including endocrine disruption, heart disease, infertility and reduced IQ and poor attention span in children.

These chemicals are so prevalent in consumer products, that a study of 857 children and adults by Duke University researchers found flame retardant chemicals in 90 percent of participants — and in higher levels in children than adults. Americans have higher levels of some of the chemicals in their bodies than other developed countries, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 10 times higher than those in Europe, 100 times higher than Japan, and three times higher than in Canada.

Products containing these chemicals release cancer-causing agents when they burn, endangering the health of our firefighters. Flame retardant chemicals freely cling to and penetrate firefighter protective gear, leading to increased secondary rates of exposure after the fire. More than half of firefighter line-of-duty deaths are from job-related cancers. And years of research has shown that these chemicals do not provide any meaningful fire safety benefit. The Professional Firefighters of Maryland, Maryland State Fireman’s Association and the Maryland Fire Chief’s Association have all called for a ban on the sale of products containing these toxic chemicals.

Maryland has been a national leader on this issue, protecting its citizens from some of the worst toxic chemicals. For example, we were the first state in the country to ban the flame retardant DecaBDE in furniture, despite complaints from industry. Now, DecaBDE has been phased out nationwide. Unfortunately, while Maryland has been banning some of the worst flame retardants, new toxic chemicals continue to take their place, leaving the state in a relentless game of whack-a-mole.

2017 guidance from the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that manufacturers of children's products, electronic casings, furniture and mattresses refrain from adding flame retardants to their products. They highly recommended that pregnant women avoid products containing these chemicals due to potential health effects on children in the womb. In 2018, California passed a law to restrict toxic flame retardants in most products in homes. Maryland should do the same.

It doesn’t make sense to continue using these chemicals. There are effective, non-chemical, ways to provide fire safety, including adding barriers between foam and fabric and using naturally flame resistant fabrics, such as wool. The best ways to prevent harm from fire continue to be smoke detectors and sprinklers.

State Del. Bonnie Cullison and Sen. Antonio Hayes, Democrats from Montgomery County and Baltimore City, respectively, have introduced legislation to restrict toxic flame retardants in children’s products, mattress foam and upholstered furniture, following the lead of California. With less than a month left of the legislative session, it’s time for Maryland to join the movement to eliminate these toxic chemicals and protect our children, firefighters, and families.

As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

We won’t be fooled by the chemical industry any longer. These chemicals don’t work, they aren’t safe, and they need to go.

Kyanna Cadwallader is the public health program associate for Maryland PIRG; her email is kcadwallader@marylandpirg.org.

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