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Consumer Safety

U.S. agency struggling with organohalogen flame retardants in consumer products

Consumer Product Safety Commission seeks National Academies’ advice on regulating chemicals as a class

by Cheryl Hogue
September 23, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 38


Photo shows baby seated in a plastic high chair eating food off the tray.
Credit: Shutterstock
Health and environmental groups want the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban children’s items, including high chairs, containing organohalogen flame retardants that can migrate out of polymers.

From laptop computers to babies’ high chairs, hundreds of everyday household goods contain chemicals intentionally added to prevent or slow the items from igniting. These compounds can end up in a home’s dust and ingested by children and adults. Federal biomonitoring data show that most U.S. residents have measurable quantities of flame-retardant metabolites in their blood. This finding raises red flags because many commonly used flame retardants are linked to health concerns, including endocrine disruption, reproductive problems, cancer, and developmental defects.

Drawing shows the chemical structures of decabromodiphenyl ether and decabromodiphenyl ethane.
Flame-retardant manufacturers phased down use of decabromodiphenyl ether because of health concerns and substituted decabromodiphenyl ethane, which has similar physical and chemical traits and potentially similar toxicity.

To protect consumers, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is struggling with whether to ban an entire class of these substances: organohalogen flame retardants. CPSC, a federal agency with fewer than 600 employees, has never before considered regulating an entire category of chemicals. Meanwhile, flame-retardant manufacturers and electronics makers are dead set against a ban of all the dozens of organohalogens used in consumer products.

Now, CPSC is turning to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine. The agency wants help determining whether and how to implement a scientifically sound ban on products containing organohalogen flame retardants, a group of chemicals that includes brominated or chlorinated phosphate esters.

The gears of CPSC regulation started rolling last September after a 3-2 vote by the agency’s commissioners, who are appointed by the U.S. president to seven-year terms to direct the agency’s actions. That vote granted a petition seeking a CPSC ban of four types of household goods containing organohalogen flame retardants. Those consumer items are children’s products, except car seats; residential furniture; mattresses and mattress pads; and casings that surround electronics such as home computers.

The petition targets only organohalogens that are simply added to the material, not chemically bound within a product’s polymer structure. These so-called additive flame retardants can migrate from the products they are used in. This leads to human exposure, say the petitioners, who include the American Academy of Pediatrics and advocates for the environment, consumers, industrial workers, firefighters, and those with learning disabilities.

Organohalogen flame retardants are inherently toxic because of their physical, chemical, and biological properties, the petitioners say. At a CPSC hearing on the petition last year, Linda Birnbaum, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, agreed. “Every chemical tested in this class has adverse effects,” she said.

The petitioners argue that the chemicals’ toxicity means regulators should address them in one fell swoop. “It is imperative that CPSC’s regulation cover all organohalogen flame retardants as a class,” the petition says.

Selecting only some of these chemicals for regulation, they contend, won’t prevent manufacturers from switching to other organohalogen flame retardants with similar health effects. This practice happened in the past, the petitioners point out.

For example, concerns rose more than a decade ago about decabromodiphenyl ether because it persists in the environment and is linked to cancer and brain function impairment. The substance was widely used in the housing of televisions and personal computers. After negotiations with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, makers of this flame retardant phased out sales of the substance at the end of 2013.


In its place, chemical makers substituted a structurally similar compound, decabromodiphenyl ethane.

These ether and ethane flame retardants have similar physical and chemical properties and could pose similar health concerns (Xenobiotica 2016, DOI: 10.1080/00498254.2016.1250180).

As it focuses on a possible ban of all organohalogen flame retardants, CPSC is establishing what’s called a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel to conduct a detailed review of scientific data on organohalogen toxicity and exposure. This group of outside scientific experts will report to the agency about the risks to consumers’ health and safety from organohalogen flame retardants in the four kinds of items specified in the petition.

Meanwhile, CPSC is asking a newly formed National Academies flame retardants committee to help the agency determine whether it is possible to characterize organohalogen flame retardants clearly enough to address them as a group—or what information the agency would need to do so. “We don’t know whether it is possible to consider these as a class,” CPSC Assistant General Counsel Patricia M. Pollitzer told the committee in August at its first meeting. “It is a new question for us.”

The consumer agency is also seeking advice from the committee on whether it should—or could—break organohalogen flame retardants into subclasses for possible regulation, said George Borlase, head of the CPSC’s Office of Hazard Identification & Reduction.

Manufacturers are arguing against CPSC regulating organohalogen flame retardants as a class. Because of their varying physiochemical properties and toxicity profiles, these chemicals can’t appropriately be lumped together for regulation, said Kimberly W. White, a senior director at the chemical industry group American Chemistry Council. She spoke to the National Academies’ committee on behalf of the industry council’s North American Flame Retardant Alliance.

The hazard and risk of each organohalogen needs to be assessed individually, White argued. These compounds are not all interchangeable among applications, she added. Chris Cleet of the Information Technology Industry Council, an association that includes makers of computers, phones, and printers, backed White’s arguments against a ban of the compounds as a class.

The outcome of the work by the National Academies’ committee and the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel will have broad repercussions, Eve C. Gartner, director of the toxics program at the environmental group Earthjustice, counsel for the petitioners, tells C&EN. For instance, the two scientific reports are likely to influence EPA’s ongoing assessments of several types of flame-retardant chemicals under the federal law governing commercial chemicals, she says. In that effort, EPA is determining if these chemicals are safe for their specific uses or whether they need regulation to protect human health.

Determinations reached by CPSC and the National Academies’ committee could also have regulatory ramifications for a subset of organohalogen compounds making headlines this year—per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs)—Gartner predicts. PFAS chemicals are commonly used as surfactants, grease repellents, and wetting agents. These substances, which include perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, are increasingly being detected at levels of health concern in public drinking water supplies across the U.S. and world.

The National Academies’ committee is expected to finalize its advice on organohalogen flame retardants to CPSC in the first half of 2019, says Ellen K. Mantus, staff officer for the project.

UPDATE: This story was originally published online on Aug. 17, 2018. It was updated on Sept. 23, 2018, to clarify that the Consumer Product Safety Commission is working with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine rather than just the National Academy of Sciences. It was updated again on May 16, 2019, to identify Earthjustice as legal counsel for the petitioners asking CPSC to ban products containing organohalogens, not one of the petitioners.


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