A group of nearly 150 scientists has signed a statement about brominated and chlorinated flame retardants (BFRs and CFRs), essentially asking for some serious thought to be given about whether we really need to be using them the way we are.
BFRs and CFRs have been used in a wide range of products due to their fire retardant properties, including furniture, carpets, automobiles, electrical equipment, insulation, adhesives, appliances, construction materials, paints, and more. Unfortunately they are also highly persistent in the environment, and several of them have been found to be highly toxic. Several of these compounds have been banned; however, these have generally been replaced with other BFRs and CFRs.
Basically the statement summarizes some of what is known about BFRs and CFRs, and then makes some recommendations. If you want to read through it all, check out the actual statement. Essentially the scientists build the case that BFRs and CFRs are highly persistent in the environment and often bioaccumulative and they can undergo long-range transport, resulting in their widespread distribution in the environment. Some are mutagenic/carcinogenic or developmental toxins, and for many of the BFRs and CFRs in use we don’t know much about the toxicity. They further argue that when used as flame retardants, there isn’t really any proof that they improve fire safety while they do increase the toxicity of fires, in part due to the release of dioxins and furans, as well as increased carbon monoxide and soot.
The recommendations do not call for an outright ban; rather for improved use and disposal, and looking for better (safer) alternatives where possible, as well as better labelling and availability of information about BFRs and CFRs in consumer products.
Overall the statement is well thought-out and balanced. It doesn’t take a reactionary “ban everything” approach, but rather calls for better practices. When dealing with compounds that are highly persistent in the environment and mobile, I agree that it is best to take a cautious approach, since once they are in the environment it is very hard to get rid of them. At the same time an outright ban can sometimes cause further problems; if a chemical is banned it will often be replaced with another chemical that may not be any better than the first one. Therefore it is important that any substitutes are properly studied prior to being used.
One of the recommendations that I like is “the process of identifying alternatives to flame retardants should include not only alternative chemicals but also innovative changes in the design of products, industrial processes, and other practices that do not require the use of any flame retardant.” An accompanying editorial asks whether we really need flame retardants in products like strollers and nursery pillows (personally I suspect having a flame-retardant stroller doesn’t really have enough benefit to offset the exposures to BFRs and CFRs).
Whether these recommendations are adopted anywhere remains to be seen. Before adopting management of any sort of toxic chemical, governments will generally do a socioeconomic evaluation to determine what the economic costs of the proposed actions will be. Due to the widespread use of BFRs and CFRs, there may be significant costs to any extreme actions. However, phasing out their use in applications where flame retardants aren’t really necessary may actually have economic benefits to some manufacturers (though obviously not to manufacturers of BFRs and CFRs). Improving disposal practices would certainly have costs (the recommendation is to ensure the persistent chemicals are destroyed or irreversibly transformed), but that is also one area where the health and environmental benefits may be significant. At least this call to action may spur on further actions to at least study the available options if it gets enough attention.
DiGangi, J., Blum, A., Bergman, �., de Wit, C., Lucas, D., Mortimer, D., Schecter, A., Scheringer, M., Shaw, S., & Webster, T. (2010). San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame Retardants Environmental Health Perspectives, 118 (12) DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1003089