Hazardous Flame Retardant Found in Household Objects
A flame retardant that was taken out of children’s pajamas more than 30 years ago after it was found to cause cancer is being used with increasing regularity in furniture, paint — even baby carriers and bassinets — and manufacturers are under no obligation to let the public know about it.
The chemical, known as chlorinated Tris, one of the three most commonly used flame retardants, is considered harmful by several international and national health and regulatory agencies, including the National Cancer Institute, the World Health Organization and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
One program within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified the chemical as a cancer hazard and notes that it caused reproductive problems, developmental defects, anemia, liver failure and eye and skin irritation in laboratory animals.
But another EPA program, which was established to warn the public about dangerous chemicals, makes no mention of these concerns on its Web site or in any other descriptions it distributes. The program, known as the High Production Volume Challenge, established a registry of the most common chemicals. But it does not refer to research that shows the chemical causes cancer in lab animals even at low doses.
Instead, the government Web site lists 16 studies that each conclude the chemical does not harm people. The Journal Sentinel examined those studies and found that all were funded by chemical-makers; all but one were conducted more than 25 years ago; and only one was published or peer-reviewed, a standard of rigorous scientific scrutiny.
This lopsided assessment is the latest example of how the EPA gives preferential treatment to the chemical industry. Instead of conducting independent reviews of chemicals, the EPA allows chemical manufacturers to characterize the safety of the products they make. The EPA then posts those claims on its Web site, often without verifying or correcting the information.
In recent months, the Journal Sentinel has reported that the EPA gives greater weight to industry-funded science in its endocrine disruptor and voluntary children's chemical evaluation programs.
Richard Denison, a senior scientist for Environmental Defense Fund, the group that helped the EPA design the chemical registry, has filed a complaint with the EPA as a result of the Journal Sentinel findings. He calls the EPA's public description of the chemical full of "serious omissions and inaccurate and misleading conclusions."
"This unfortunate example negates any presumption that the EPA can rely on sponsors to have conducted a thorough and objective review of available data," Denison said.
Dale Kemery, a spokesman for the EPA, said companies are responsible for submitting the information about the chemicals they make.
"Any errors or problems reside with the submitter," Kemery said.
He said the EPA is still collecting data on the chemical, and the final assessment has not been made.
But the Web site shows that the last entry was dated 2001, and the EPA has not updated or corrected anything. Kemery did not respond to questions about why the EPA has taken so long to issue its final assessment.
Chlorinated Tris is meant to make products like upholstered furniture and mattresses safer by preventing them from catching fire. But consumers could be trading one danger for another, scientists say.
Arlene Blum, a scientist from the University of California-Berkeley whose work led to the chemicals being taken out of children's sleepwear in the 1970s, said she was astonished to learn that chlorinated Tris is back in such widespread use in other consumer products, particularly couches and places where children play.
"We are going from one toxin to another with no requirement to tell people about the threats to their health and safety," Blum said. "It's been more than 30 years and the chemical industry hasn't bothered to come up with alternative? We can't do any better than this?"
Used in the 1970s
Chlorinated Tris was developed in the 1950s and introduced as a flame retardant commercially in 1962. It was given the trade name Fyrol FR-2 but has since been produced by several chemical companies under various trade names, including Antiblaze 195.
Chlorinated Tris and its chemical cousin, brominated Tris, were widely used as flame retardants in children's pajamas until 1977, when studies linked them to cancer in animals. Brominated Tris, the more dangerous of the two, was banned. Chlorinated Tris was not.
Today, chlorinated Tris is quietly but widely used as a flame retardant in foam for furniture, car upholstery – including baby carriers – wall hangings and mattresses, including bassinet pads. It's also used as a lacquer for paints.
Chlorinated Tris is added to foam in the same way a flavoring would be added to bread, before it is baked. Typically, about 12% of the weight of foam in tainted products is chlorinated Tris. The chemical can be inhaled or ingested or absorbed through the skin.
Estimates of how much is produced each year in the United States range from 10 million to 50 million pounds. Precise figures are not known because manufacturers are not obligated to report actual production volume and many do not, claiming proprietary privilege.
'We're trying not to use it'
The use of chlorinated Tris as a flame retardant has increased, foam manufacturers say, particularly since 2004 when a chemical known as penta-BDE was banned in Europe and discontinued in the United States after it was found to cause neurological defects in animals.
But chlorinated Tris is a strange choice as a substitute because of its known health risks, industry executives and scientists say.
"We're trying not to use it," said Lynn Knudtson, regulatory compliance officer with Future Foam Inc., a manufacturing company with plants in 14 states, including one in Middleton.
Still, Knudtson says, they do use the chemical. Of the three other foam-makers contacted by the Journal Sentinel, all said they use chlorinated Tris.
Whatever foam is not treated with chlorinated Tris is likely to be treated with Firemaster 550, a chemical compound whose ingredients are kept confidential by its manufacturers. The EPA allows companies to keep their formulas a secret to protect them from competitors.
You won't find out what kinds of paints or cushions contain chlorinated Tris by looking at labels either.
In the production chain – from the foam manufacturers to furniture retailers – very few actually know if chlorinated Tris is in their products. No one is obligated to label which products contain it.
Even Knudtson says he is not certain exactly which of the foam products his company makes contain chlorinated Tris.
"It's not like we have a toxicological research department in our plants," he said.
Foam-makers say they do not like using chlorinated Tris for two reasons: it's expensive and there are concerns about its health effects on humans. But they use it, they say, to comply with state fire safety codes.
"Why in the world are we using something that we don't know anything about?" said Bob Luedeka, president of the Polyurethane Foam Association.
Luedeka says he is concerned about the safety of foam-makers who work with chemicals found to cause so many health problems in animals tested.
Future Foam spokesman Knudtson said his company does get questions about the chemical's safety from workers.
"Anytime you have someone handling chemicals, you have concerns," he said.
The key is to use the chemicals carefully, he said.
"A person can drown, but we don't outlaw water," he said.
The EPA's chemical registry program was supposed to clear up any such uncertainty about the safety of chlorinated Tris.
The program started 10 years ago as a way to track the safety of chemicals produced in quantities of 1 million pounds or more a year. It was designed as a voluntary program with hopes it would be quicker and less expensive than an adversarial one.
Chlorinated Tris is one of more than 2,000 chemicals included in the EPA's registry. The program was designed so concerned consumers could punch in the name of a chemical and find the research on it.
All of the information on chlorinated Tris was submitted in 2001 by AkzoNobel, a chemical company based in the Netherlands. That company, which no longer makes chlorinated Tris, did not respond to requests for an interview.
A company called Supresta, based in Ardsley, N.Y., bought the division that makes chlorinated Tris. Supresta is now owned by Israel Chemical Limited.
Richard Hooper, Supresta's president and chief executive officer, said no one at the company's American facility worked for AkzoNobel when the company submitted its description of the chemical to the EPA in 2001.
He said he was not a toxicologist and, therefore, not "really qualified to answer the questions." He said he was not able to find anyone who could remember anything about the company's submission to the EPA seven years ago.
The public accounting of chlorinated Tris that was submitted to the EPA is hardly a comprehensive accounting of the scientific findings of the chemical. Its one published and peer-reviewed entry was based on a study completed more than 25 years earlier. That experiment was conducted between 1979 and 1981, before more sensitive tests were developed.
Conclusion at odds
The one published summary, highlighted on the EPA's Web site, claims the chemical is safe – a conclusion dramatically at odds with reports released about the same time by the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute, the National Research Council and even the EPA's own internal assessment. That summary, published in 2000 in the International Journal of Toxicology, was written by one AkzoNobel's own employees.
The article concluded that the chemical did not cause cancer in lab animals. The company bolstered its conclusion by citing published research that showed that the chemical did not cause harm.
But the chemical company's submission fails to mention at least four other reports released earlier or about that time that did find harm. Those reports include ones from the International Programme on Chemical Safety, the National Cancer Institute, the National Research Council and even the EPA's own Design for Environment Program's Furniture Flame Retardancy Partnership.
In each case, the organizations found that chlorinated Tris caused cancer in lab animals. But those conclusions were diametrically opposed to the report submitted by AkzoNobel that drew upon the exact same study.
For example, the International Programme on Chemical Safety released a study in 1998 that found chlorinated Tris caused cancer in lab animals at all exposure levels that were tested in both sexes of rats. Animals developed tumors in the liver, kidney, testicles and brain.
The AkzoNobel submission notes parts of some of these same studies but cherry-picks the conclusions, citing only those parts that minimize harm.
"This is nothing short of an egregious effort to distort the facts and provide the EPA with a highly selective set of data," said Denison, the scientist whose group helped develop the EPA's chemical information program.
He called the chemical company's submission "a breach of the most basic ground rules" of the EPA's program.
Independent study sought
Blum, the scientist whose work led to the removal of chlorinated Tris in children's pajamas more than 30 years ago, said she is disappointed in the EPA's actions.
"The public has no way to know that this data is not meaningful," Blum said. "If the EPA puts their name on data, they give it legitimacy, and need to make sure it is the best data available."
The EPA reserves the right to review a company's submission of its chemical information and correct any errors. The EPA has not flagged or corrected the AkzoNobel submission.
Denison has called on the EPA to conduct an independent evaluation of chlorinated Tris to determine how dangerous it is. He also asked the EPA to take steps to correct the information about the chemical on its Web site.
He said such incomplete characterizations call into question the integrity of the EPA's program.
The problems with the report on chlorinated Tris should "serve as a wake-up call," he said.
Denison sent his request on June 2 but has not yet gotten a reply.