What’s new in safe flame retardants?

2 03 2017

I get tired of always pointing out the bad chemicals that can do us harm, so I thought it might be fun to try to find if there is new research on flame retardants which may be on the market – and which don’t harm us or our planet!

More than 175 flame retardant compounds are currently on the market, and the industry is worth over $600 million dollars per year in the U.S. and nearly $2 billion worldwide, according to the European Flame Retardants Association.

Flame-retardants are far more common than most of us realize. Many materials contain quite high levels of flame retardants: cellulose insulation is about 20% flame retardant by weight, plastic television and computer cases are often 10–20%, and polyurethane foam cushioning can be up to 30%. Some materials have very low levels of flame-retardants: polystyrene foam insulation is typically 0.5–2.0% HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) by weight.

Manufacturers of products with less than 1% flame retardant are not required to list it on the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), since it falls below the threshold for required listing. Some products use flame-retardants as secondary components, which can also render an MSDS misleading.

Most of the current concern about flame-retardants focuses on brominated flame- retardants (BFRs). Brominated flame-retardants are widely used for plastics, due to their effectiveness and relatively low cost. More than 75 of these compounds or mixtures are recognized commercially. Some are generic compounds made by a number of manufacturers; others are proprietary formulations that differ slightly from product to product. The best-known BFRs today are PBDEs, HBCD, and TBBPA – none of which anybody wants to live with.

So is there a safe flame retardant available today on the market? Not yet, but there is promising research. Here are three discoveries that may change the FR landscape:

  1. Researchers in Italy have demonstrated that caseins—proteins found in milk that are a by-product of cheese production—may be an alternative to flame-retardants. Some types of flame-retardants, such as organophosphate esters, get their fire-blocking properties from their high phosphorus content. When they burn, a polymer layer of phosphoric acid forms and creates a char that blocks heat transfer to unburned areas of the material, slowing the spread of the fire. Jenny Alongi of the Polytechnic University of Turin and her colleagues decided to investigate a family of proteins called caseins as alternative flame-retardants because they contain a large number of phosphate groups. Caseins are found in the whey which is a by-product of cheese production, so in countries that produce a lot of cheese, such as Italy and France, the proteins are cheap and abundant, Alongi says.

The team coated three materials—cotton, polyester, and a blend of 65% polyester and 35% cotton—with the proteins by soaking the fabrics in distilled water mixed with casein powder. The researchers then submitted the samples to a battery of flammability tests. The results were encouraging: In cotton- and polyester-only fabrics treated with caseins, flames extinguished themselves, leaving 86% of the cotton and 77% of the polyester unburned. The cotton-polyester blend burned completely but took 60% more time to do so than the untreated material. The flame-retardant properties of caseins also compared well to those of ammonium polyphosphate (APP), a flame retardant used for flame proofing polyolefins and polyurethanes. The caseins effectively form a char layer on the fabric samples and don’t produce toxic fumes during combustion.

Before caseins can be used as flame retardants, researchers need to work out many issues, such as preventing the proteins from washing off materials. The team is now testing light-curable resins and molecules such as urea that could bond the casein molecules to the surface of the fabric, Alongi says. Another problem is that materials treated with caseins smell rancid. Alongi and her colleagues are looking for ways to remove the molecules associated with casein that produce the odor.[1]

  1. What sounds like fixings for a wizard’s potion—a dash of clay, a dab of fiber from crab shells, and a dollop of DNA—actually are the ingredients of promising safe fire retardants invented by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Applied to polyurethane foam, the bio-based coatings greatly reduced the flammability of the common furniture padding after it was exposed to an open flame. Peak and average rates of heat release—two key indicators of the magnitude of a fire hazard—were reduced by 48 percent and 77 percent, respectively, the NIST team reports in the journal Green Materials.

“This is the biggest reduction in flammability that we have achieved to date,” says team leader Rick Davis. The all-natural coatings outperform other promising experimental fire-retardants that the NIST researchers have devised with their layer-by-layer assembly method. But Davis says the bio-based coatings must be applied more generously, in stacks of about 20 layers as compared with six or seven layers.

The new coatings use negatively charged DNA molecules to link two positively charged materials known to enhance fire resistance: montmorillonite, a type of soft clay that forms tiny crystals, and chitosan, a fiber derived from the shells of shrimp, lobsters and other crustaceans. For its part, DNA, which was obtained from herring sperm, may also confer added protection because it bubbles and swells when heated, protecting the material beneath.[2]

  1. In September, 2015, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) published their discovery of a flame-retardant that is nontoxic and won’t accumulate over time in the bodies of people who come in contact with it. It’s made entirely from the chemical dopamine—the neurotransmitter in our brains associated with reward and pleasure. The researchers took their cue from marine mussels, who secrete a mucus-like “glue” made of dopamine that allows the mussels to stick to nearly any surface, including Teflon, widely considered nonadhesive. The mussel’s “glue” has been the focus of several studies, especially for its use as a bio adhesive; it’s nontoxic, making it attractive for uses in the body, like closing incisions without stitches

Christopher Ellison, associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at UT, and his team found that the dopamine-based coating performs wonderfully as a fire retardant. In fact, according to the team’s paper, the dopamine retardant reduces a fire’s intensity 20 percent better than retardants currently on the market. “We beat them all,” Ellison says.[3]

So, there may be safe flame retardants on the horizon – and I can tell you this:  lots of people are looking for them.

 

[1] http://cen.acs.org/articles/92/web/2014/03/Milk-Proteins-Protect-Fabrics-Fire.html

[2] http://www.nist.gov/el/fire_research/fire-060314.cfm

[3] http://www.newsweek.com/2015/10/23/new-nontoxic-flame-retardant-derived-dopamine-381616.html

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The Environmental Working Group’s recent post about “five couches without flame-retardants”

27 03 2015

In a  post dated March20, 2015, the EWG’s Enviroblog had a list of five sofas without flame-retardants that you can buy right now. It is, of course, wonderful that the State of California has revised their antique law requiring flame-retardants in furniture, but shame on the Environmental Working Group for failing to point out the many other components of sofas which are impacting our health. By not pointing out the effects that these components have on our health, people believe that a fire retardant-free sofa is safe. Yes, we have a broken federal law that purports to protect us, and yes, fire retardants are finally getting the recognition as the bad guys they deserve. But having a flame retardant-free sofa doesn’t mean you’re home safe!

Of the five sofas on the list, West Elm stands out as giving no information at all on the components – a sure sign of concern. Of the remaining four, all use polyurethane for cushioning (Crate and Barrel tries to up the ante by using “soy-based polyurethane foam”, one of Terrachoice’s “Six Sins of Greenwashing”). Room & Board uses “engineered hardwood” (i.e., glulam or other manufactured wood glued together) and Ikea uses fiberboard. And none offer an Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabric! Those components, in terms of your health, mean:

FRAME:

  • If you have chosen a sofa which uses “engineered hardwood” or fiberboard, then you will also be living with formaldehyde emissions. See our blog post: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/sofa-shopping-frame-and-suspension/
  • For the sofas made with hardwood, no mention is made of the glue, varnish or paints used. The hardwood itself used by Crate and Barrel and Design Within Reach is not FSC certified (despite Crate and Barrel’s use of “USA certified sustainable hardwood” – by not mentioning the certification by name I assume it is self-certified). That means you’ve chipped away at your children’s inheritance of this Earth by supporting practices which don’t support healthy forests, which are critical to maintaining life: forests filter pollutants from the air, purify the water we drink, and help stabilize the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. See our blog post about the importance of FSC certified wood: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/what-kind-of-wood-is-best-for-your-new-green-sofa/

CUSHIONS:

  • Even high-density polyurethane foam – as well as soy foam, the new media darling – emits methyloxirane, which causes cancer and genetic mutations, and toluene, a neurotoxin. Polyurethane/soy foams oxidize over time, sending these chemicals into the air, where you can breathe them in.  Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development. It is one of the components of furniture that the University of Saskatchewan (among others) suggests be avoided in furniture.[1]  A study (the first of its kind) published last year by the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, found over 30 chemicals which are emitted from polyurethane foam, including phenol, neodecanoic acid and linalool.(2)  See our blog post about soy based foam: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/sofa-cushions-foam-soy-foam-or-latex/ and about the components of polyurethane foam: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/how-to-buy-a-quality-sofa-part-3-foam/

DECORATIVE FABRIC:

  • Produced without regard to the kinds of chemicals used in dyestuffs, processing or finishes – because none of these sofas offer Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabrics. Fabrics are, by weight, about 25% synthetic chemicals[3], and textile processing uses some of the most dangerously toxic chemicals known – among them, lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A (BPA), PFOA, NPA’s. There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used  –  because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. That’s why a third party certification such as Oeko-Tex or GOTS can provide assurance that the chemicals which are known (or suspected) to harm human health are not in the fabric you’re living with.  See one (of many) blog posts we have done on the subject: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/what-effects-do-fabric-choices-have-on-you/

GLUE, VARNISH, PAINT

  • Finally, glues, varnishes, paint all contribute to the toxic load of evaporating chemicals if conventional products have been used on the sofa.

It was sad that EWG chose to ignore the many small manufacturers who produce what is being called “organic sofas”, for lack of a better word. These manufacturers use natural latex (sometimes GOLS certified), FSC certified hardwoods and Oeko-Tex or GOTS certified fabrics – and have not been using flame retardants for years!  They vet all the products they use to conform to their requirements.     Instead, my heroes, the EWG, have supported business as usual.

[1]http://www.usask.ca/fsd/resources/documents/puchasing/sustainability/Furniture.pdf

(2) http://www.utexas.edu/news/2014/04/02/crib-mattresses-emit-chemicals/

[3] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.





What is intrinsically flame retardant polyester?

11 02 2014

Polyester is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors. Most are carcinogens; all are poisonous. And even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure (I don’t know enough chemistry to figure that one out – can anybody help?), the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of these toxic precursors. ( To see our blog post about polyester, click here ).  So I’m just not a fan of synthetics – even polyester.  Just so you know.

To make an intrinsically flame retardant polyester,  the most common method is to add  brominated flame retardants (BFR’s)  to the polymer during the melt phase.   This means the chemicals are “trapped” in the polymer.  Included in this huge class of BFR’s is:

  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s):  besides PBDE, the group includes DecaBDE, OctaBDE and PentaBDE (neither Octa nor Penta is manufactured anymore)
  • Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) – also not manufactured anymore
  • Brominated cyclohydrocarbons

Brominated flame retardants are persistent, accumulate in the food chain, and toxic to both humans and the environment and are suspected of causing neurobehavioral effects, endocrine disruption,  cancer and other degenerative diseases.

So now you have a polyester fabric which is made from toxic monomers, which in turn come from crude oil, a precious non-renewable resource. It becomes  “intrinsically flame retarded” by having PBDE’s mixed into the polymer at the melt stage.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to live with that mixture.  Think about it:  It’s generally assumed that PBDE’s in plastics (of all kinds)  volatilize –  but even if they didn’t, each time you sit on your sofa microscopic particles of the fabric are abraded and fall into the dust in your homes, where you can breathe them in.

Many manufacturers advertise the use of “intrinsically flame retardant” polyester fabrics on their sofas.  But why would you need an intrinsically flame retarded fabric on a sofa in your home?  There is no law that says the fabric in a residential setting must have flame retardants (unlike the laws that exist to cover public areas, like offices, airports, hotels, etc.)  Can’t you use a fabric without flame retardants?





Fire retardants: the new asbestos

9 05 2013

My toxic couch:

I’d like to nominate flame retardant chemicals used in our furniture, fabrics and baby products – as well as a host of other products – as being in the running for the “new asbestos”. These chemicals (halogenated flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are commonly known as PBDE’s. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune, responding to the series published by that paper about flame retardants called “Playing with Fire” (click here to read the series), said the use of flame retardants is a public health debacle.

According to “Playing with Fire”, the average American baby is born with “10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded level of flame retardants among infants in the world.” Many of these chemicals accumulate within the blood, fat, and even breast milk, causing a number of unknown health risks. One common ingredient in flame retardants, BDE-49, has recently been found to damage neural mitochondria, leading to brain damage. The same study also found evidence of autism effects being amplified by environmental factors.(1) The MIND Institute at UC Davis, responsible for the study, summarized it by saying the “chemical, quite literally, reduces brain power,” noting that the findings “bolster the argument that genetics and environment can combine to increase the risk of autism and other neurological disorders.”

These chemicals accumulate in human tissues – and they last a really long time . In addition, we’re being constantly re-exposed because they’re ubiquitous in the environment – they’re used for foam in cushions, but also in such things as baby strollers, carpeting, mattresses and electronics. These chemicals are also found in mother’s milk in every country of the world and in animals – from polar bears in the Arctic to hummingbirds in the Amazon.

In the United States, California has required flame retardants on everything from children’s pajamas to furniture. This standard is called Technical Bulletin 117, or TB 117, which was passed in 1975 and requires that polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. Because California is such a large market, and also because there is no other state or federal standard, many manufacturers comply with the California rule, usually by adding flame retardants with the foam.

The startling and disturbing result of a published study in Environmental Health Perspectives is that Latino children born in California have levels of PBDE in their blood seven times higher than do children who were born and raised in Mexico.[2] In general, residents of California have higher rates of PBDE in their blood than do people in other parts of the United States – and people in the United States have levels of PBDE higher than anyone else in the world.

A home can contain a pound or more of fire retardants. These chemicals are similar in structure and action to substances such as PCBs and DDT that are widely banned. They leak out from furniture, settle in dust and are taken in by toddlers when they put their hands into their mouths. A paper published in Environmental Science & Technology [3] also finds high fire retardant levels in pet dogs. Cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all.

One troubling example is chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s largely based on research done by Dr. Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist, after it was found to mutate DNA and identified as a probable human carcinogen. In the journal Environmental Science and Technology, new research published in 2011 shows that chlorinated Tris was found in more than a third of the foam samples tested – products such as nursing pillows, highchairs, car seats and changing pads.[4] Tris is now being used again at high levels in furniture being sold in California to meet the California standard.

The benefits of adding flame retardants have not been proved. Since the 1980s, retardants have been added to California furniture, yet from 1980 to 2004, fire deaths in states without such a standard declined at a similar rate as they did in California. And during a fire when the retardants burn, they increase the toxicity of the fire, producing dioxins, as well as additional carbon monoxide, soot and smoke, which are the major causes of fire deaths.

So why are we rolling the dice and exposing our children to substances with the potential to cause serious health problems when there is no proven fire safety benefit?

Under current law, it is difficult for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ban or restrict chemicals – current federal oversight of chemicals is so weak that manufacturers are not required to label products with flame retardants nor are they required to list what chemicals are used.[5]. Even now, the agency has yet to ban asbestos!

And when a ban does go into effect, it’s usually severely restricted: for example, in the USA, BPA is now banned in baby bottles – but only in baby bottles. Many products tout the fact that they’re “BPA free” but that’s because the chemical has hit a nerve with consumers, who recognize that BPA isn’t a good thing to have in plastic water bottles, for example, so the manufacturers voluntarily restrict its use. Another example is lead, which has been banned in the USA in some products– paint and gasoline come quickly to mind – but is still used in others, such as plastics, printing, and dyes. New legislation restricts the amount of lead that can be present in products designed for children to 100 ppm, despite the fact that research shows that any detectable amount of lead can be harmful to kids.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been working on a federal flammability standard for upholstered furniture for 16 years. The current proposal would allow manufacturers to meet the flammability standard without fire retardants. An agency spokesman said that “additional research looking into consumer exposure and the impact of chemical alternatives is needed.”

California State Sen. Mark Leno sponsored California Senate Bill 147, the Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act, introduced in February, 2011. The bill called for an alternative furniture flammability standard that would give consumers the choice to purchase furniture that is fire-safe and nontoxic.

However, aggressive lobbying in the form of multimillion-dollar campaigns from “Citizens for Fire Safety” and other front groups funded by three bromine producers – Albemarle, Chemtura and Israeli Chemicals Ltd. – resulted in a defeat of this bill in March, 2011. Their main argument was that new flame retardants – similar in structure and properties to the old ones and lacking any health information – were safe. This despite opposition which included 30 eloquent firefighters, scientists, physicians and health officers representing thousands of Californians. But new life is again being breathed into this issue, and California has introduced a new TB117-2013 to address the problem by changing the testing parameters so as not to need flame retardants.

But stay tuned – the chemical industry has a lot at stake and they won’t go down without a fight.

Although we stopped most uses of asbestos decades ago, workers and others inadvertently exposed continue to die from its long-term effects. Let’s not add more chemicals to this sad list.

(1) Napoli E, Hung C, Wong S, Giulivi C., “Toxicity of the flame-retardant BDE-49 on brain mitochondria and neuronal progenitor striatal cells enhanced by a PTEN-deficient background” Toxicol Sci. 2013 Mar;132(1):196-210.
[2] Eskenazi, B., et al., “A Comparison of PBDE Serum Concentrations in Mexican and Mexican-American
Children Living in California”, http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002874
[3] Vernier, Marta and Hites, Ronald; “Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in their Food”, Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, 45 (10), pp4602-4608. http://pubs.acs.org/action/doSearch?action=search&searchText=PBDE+levels+in+pets&qsSearchArea=searchText&type=within&publication=40025991
[4] Martin, Andrew, “Chemical Suspected in Cancer is in Baby products”, The New York Times, May 17, 2011.
[5] Ibid.





Fire retardants and mistrust of scientific data

8 08 2012

You may have read the series published by the Chicago Tribune which began on May 7, “Playing With Fire”, in which they expose the history of fire retardants which are used in furniture in the United States. The Tribune found that:

  • Chemicals that are used in household furnishings such as sofas and chairs to slow fire do not work.
  • Some fire retardant materials used over the years pose serious health risks. They have been linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility. A lot of household furniture is chock full of these chemicals. They escape from the furniture and settle in dust. That’s particularly dangerous for toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths.

According to an editorial which was published in the Tribune on May 11, “you have been sold a false sense of security about the risk of your furniture burning, and you’ve been exposed to dangerous chemicals you didn’t know about. If you’re not angry, you ought to be”.

How were U.S. consumers and manufacturers sold on the safety and effectiveness of flame retardant chemicals?

According to the series:

  • It turns out that our furniture first became full of flame retardants because of the tobacco industry[1].  A generation ago, tobacco companies were facing growing pressure to produce fire-safe cigarettes, because so many house fires started with smoldering cigarettes. So tobacco companies mounted a surreptitious campaign for flame retardant furniture, rather than safe cigarettes, as the best way to reduce house fires.  The documents show that cigarette lobbyists secretly organized the National Association of State Fire Marshals  and then guided its agenda so that it pushed for flame retardants in furniture. The fire marshals seem to have been well intentioned, but utterly manipulated.  An advocacy group called Citizens for Fire Safety later pushed for laws requiring fire retardants in furniture. It describes itself as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”  But Citizens for Fire Safety has only three members, which also happen to be the three major companies that manufacture flame retardants: Albemarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura Corporation.
  • A prominent burn doctor’s misleading testimony was part of a campaign of deception and distortion on the efficacy of these chemicals. The chemical industry “has disseminated misleading research findings so frequently that they essentially have been adopted as fact,” the authors wrote.  To read about this, click here.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to safeguard America’s health and environment, has allowed generation after generation of flame retardants onto the market without rigorously evaluating the health risks

As Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, said: It’s not easy for a democracy to regulate technical products like endocrine disruptors that may offer great benefits as well as complex risks, especially when the hazards remain uncertain. A generation ago, Big Tobacco played the system like a violin, and now Big Chem is doing the same thing.  To read his editorial, click here.

What I find intriguing about this expose is how the chemical lobby was able to pull this off.  We have known the science behind fire retardants for many years, just as we know the science behind global climate change.  The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication , in conjunction with the Gallup Group, found that although most Americans (66%) now believe  climate change is happening,  only 42% believe that it is caused by human activities.[2]  Will scholars a thousand years from now wonder why, after scientists had so thoroughly nailed down the reality of climate change, did so many Americans get fooled into thinking it was all a left-wing hoax?

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have published a book, Merchants of Doubt, that explores what they say is the widespread mistrust and misunderstanding of scientific consensus by the American public.[3]  They probe the history of organized campaigns, (similar to the one done by the three fire retardant manufacturers in the Playing with Fire series), to create public doubt and confusion about science.

In a review of the book which appeared in American Scientist, Robert Proctor says that the authors demonstrate “how a small band of right-wing scholars steeped in Cold War myopia, with substantial financing from powerful corporate polluters, managed to mislead large sections of the American public into thinking that the evidence for human-caused warming was uncertain, unsound, politically tainted and unfit to serve as the basis for any kind of political action.”

The story, he says, helps explain why  “these free-market fundamentalists, steeped in Cold War oppositions (market economies versus command economies, the individual versus the state, the free world versus Big Brother), attacked any and all efforts to trace environmental maladies back to corporate chemicals. Chlorinated fluorocarbons were not really eating away at the ozone layer, and the sulfates being belched from coal-fired plants were not causing forest-harming acid rain; even secondhand cigarette smoke was not causing any provable harm. This tobacco connection is significant. Oreskes and Conway show that a number of other climate-change denialists served as advisors to the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a Philip Morris front run by APCO Associates to challenge the evidence linking secondhand smoke to disease”.  Rachael Carson is now, in this revisionist world,  blamed for deaths from the banning of DDT.

But what is at the bottom of all this is the definition of the proper role of government in limiting the right to pollute.  Robert Proctor says the doubt mongers  “are not so much antiscience as antigovernment and pro–unfettered business. Ever since the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, libertarian ideologues have managed to convince large numbers of Americans that government is inherently bad—worse even than carcinogens in your food or poisons in your water. So for followers of this line of thinking—expressed in some recent Tea Party activities but more potently in many of the trade associations and “think tanks” established by major polluters—the view seems to be that if science gets in your way, you can always make up some of your own. The foolishness of such myopia is now evident in the oil spreading throughout the Gulf of Mexico—vivid proof that, as Isaiah Berlin once observed, liberty for wolves can mean death to lambs.”


[2] “Climate Change in the American Mind”, May 15, 2012, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

[3] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway,   MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,  Bloomsbury Press, 2010.





Asbestos – and fire retardants.

24 10 2011

A half century ago, asbestos – a ” 100% natural” material by the way –  was hailed as the wonder fiber of the 20th century.   It was principally used for its heat resistant properties and to protect property (and incidentally, human lives) from the ravages of fire. Because of this, asbestos was used in virtually all industrial applications as well as the construction of buildings and sea-going vessels. In the United States, asbestos is still legally used in 3,000 different consumer products, predominantly building insulation (and other building materials), automobile parts such as brake pads, roofing materials, floor tiles. Since asbestos became known to be a potent human health risk, many manufacturers found alternatives to asbestos:  for example, since the mid-1990s, a majority of brake pads, new or replacement, have been manufactured instead with linings made of ceramic, carbon, metallic and aramid fiber( Twaron or Kevlar – the same material used in bulletproof vests).

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, three of the major health effects associated with asbestos exposure include:

  • Asbestosis —  a serious, progressive, long-term non-cancer disease of the lungs. It is caused by inhaling asbestos fibers that irritate lung tissues and cause the tissues to scar. The scarring makes it hard for oxygen to get into the blood. The latency period (meaning the time it takes for the disease to develop) is often 10–20 years. There is no effective treatment for asbestosis.
  • CancerCancer of the lung, gastrointestinal tract, kidney and larynx have been linked to asbestos. The latency period for cancer is often 15–30 years.
  •  Mesothelioma — Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is found in the thin lining (membrane) of the lung, chest, abdomen, and heart. Unlike lung, cancer, mesothelioma has no association with smoking. The only established causal factor is exposure to asbesto  fibers. The latency period for mesothelioma may be 20–50 years. The prognosis for mesothelioma is grim, with most patients dying within 12 months of diagnosis.  This is why great efforts are being made to prevent school children from being exposed.

Worldwide, 52 countries (including those in the European Union) have banned the use of asbestos, in whole or in part.  In the United States, only six categories of products can NOT contain asbestos:  flooring felt, rollboard, and corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper. In addition, there is a ban on the use of asbestos in products that have not historically contained asbestos, otherwise referred to as “new uses” of asbestos.   

So today, asbestos remains in millions of structures throughout the country, as many people find out (to their dismay) when they are planning to repaint their home or do other remodeling tasks and must deal with the EPA rules for safe disposal or removal of products which may contain asbestos.   Millions of people are exposed at home or in their workplace by the monumental quantities of asbestos that remain in the built environment — the attic insulation in 30 million American homes, for instance — following decades of heavy use.  It also remains heavily used in brake shoes and other products, directly exposing auto mechanics and others who work with the materials, and indirectly exposing consumers and workers’ families.

No safe level of minimum exposure has ever been established for asbestos. Many of the first cases of mesothelioma were persons who never directly handled asbestos as part of their jobs. An early case in South Africa occurred in a young girl whose job it was to empty the pockets of miners before dry cleaning their clothes. The asbestos dust in the miners’ pockets made her fatally ill.[1]   People who have worked in plumbing, steel, insulation and electrical industries have very high chances of suffering from asbestos-related disease. In fact, they could have passed it on to their family members through the dust that could have clung to their shirts, shoes and other personal belongings.

Today, even though global asbestos use is down, there are more than 10,000 deaths per year due to the legacy of asbestos exposure.[2] Asbestos kills thousands more people each year than skin cancer, and kills almost as many people as are slain in assaults with firearms

With the science to back up the claims that asbestos is a serial killer, and with global use on the downward swing, wouldn’t you think that deaths from asbestos exposure would be going down?  Yet, the U.S. EPA reports that asbestos related deaths are increasing  and, according to the studies cited by the Environmental Working Group, many believe that  the U.S. asbestos disease epidemic may not even peak for another ten years or more.

This ongoing increase in asbestos mortality is due largely to the fact that asbestos-caused cancers and other diseases have a 20 to 50 year latency period, meaning that individuals exposed in the 1960s and 1970s are just now dying from their exposure. Better tracking accounts for the dramatic increase in mesothelioma mortality reported in 1999, but lung cancer deaths from asbestos are not reported at all, and asbestosis is still dramatically underreported even in worker populations where asbestos exposure is well established.

The legacy of asbestos, in the United States as in other countries such as the U.K. and Australia, is that the initial use of asbestos as a miracle fiber quickly gave rise to a burgeoning industry and adoption of asbestos in many products.   This happened long before any detrimental health effects were known, so now,  many years later,  asbestos related disease is killing significant numbers of people.  Environmental Health Perspectives last year published “The Case for a Global Ban on Asbestos”[3]

If you google “new asbestos” you can find many materials that people claim could be the “new asbestos” – nanotechnology, fly ash and climate-change litigation for example – because these are all being widely adopted before being well understood, and may well leave a legacy of death and destruction similar to that of asbestos.  Well, okay, litigation has not been known to kill directly, but you understand the point I’m trying to make.

I’d like to nominate flame retardant chemicals used in our furniture, fabrics and baby products – as well as a host of other products – as being in the running for the new asbestos.  These chemicals are called halogenated flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers – commonly known as PBDE’s.  Women in North America have 10 to 40 times the levels of the PBDEs in their breast milk, as do women in Europe or in Asia. And these chemicals pass through the placenta and are found in infants at birth, making a double dose of toxins for young children when they are most vulnerable.  When tested in animals, fire retardant chemicals, even at very low doses, can cause endocrine disruption, thyroid disorders, cancer, and developmental, reproductive, and neurological problems such as learning impairment and attention deficit disorder.   In humans, these chemicals are associated with reduced IQ in children, reduced fertility, thyroid impacts, undescended testicles in infants (leading to a higher cancer risk), and decreases in sperm quality and function.Ongoing studies are beginning to show a connection between these chemicals and autism in children.(4)  Pregnant women have the biggest cause for concern because animal studies show negative impacts on brain development of offspring when mothers are exposed during pregnancy. And bioaccumulating PBDEs can stay in our bodies for more than a decade.

A study published last week in the Environmental Health Perspectives  points to California’s unique furniture flammability standard called Technical Bulletin 117, or TB117, as the major reason for high fire retardant levels in California. The California standard, passed in 1975, requires that polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. Because there is no other state or federal standard, many manufacturers comply with the California rule, usually by adding flame retardants with the foam.

The startling and disturbing result of the published study in Environmental Health Perspectives is that Latino children born in California have levels of PBDE in their blood seven times higher  than do children who were born and raised in Mexico.[5]  In general, residents of California have higher rates of PBDE in their blood than do people in other parts of the United States.

A home can contain a pound or more of fire retardants that are similar in structure and action to substances such as PCBs and DDT that are widely banned. They leak out from furniture, settle in dust and are taken in by toddlers when they put their hands into their mouths. A paper published in Environmental Science & Technology [6] also finds high fire retardant levels in pet dogs. Cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all.

One troubling example is chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s largely based on research done by Dr. Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist, after it was found to mutate DNA and identified as a probable human carcinogen.  In the journal Environmental Science and Technology, new research published in 2011 shows that chlorinated Tris was found in more than a third of the foam samples tested – products such as nursing pillows, highchairs, car seats and changing pads.[7]

Tris is now being used at high levels in furniture being sold in California to meet the California standard.

The benefits of adding flame retardants have not been proved. Since the 1980s, retardants have been added to California furniture. From 1980 to 2004, fire deaths in states without such a standard declined at a similar rate as they did in California. And when during a fire the retardants burn, they increase the toxicity of the fire, producing dioxins, as well as additional carbon monoxide, soot and smoke, which are the major causes of fire deaths.

So why are we rolling the dice and exposing our children to substances with the potential to cause serious health problems when there is no proven fire safety benefit?

Under current law, it is difficult for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ban or restrict chemicals – current federal  oversight of chemicals is so weak that manufacturers are not required to label products with flame retardants nor are they required to list what chemicals are used.[8]. Even now, the agency has yet to ban asbestos!

“We can buy things that are BPA free, or phthalate free or lead free. We don’t have the choice to buy things that are flame-retardant free,” says Dr. Heather Stapleton, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University. “The laws protect the chemical industry, not the general public.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been working on a federal flammability standard for upholstered furniture for 16 years. The current proposal would allow manufacturers to meet the flammability standard without fire retardants. An agency spokesman said that “additional research looking into consumer exposure and the impact of chemical alternatives is needed.”

This year, California State Sen. Mark Leno sponsored California Senate Bill 147, the Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act. The bill called for an alternative furniture flammability standard that would give consumers the choice to purchase furniture that is fire-safe and nontoxic.

However, aggressive lobbying in the form of multimillion-dollar campaigns from “Citizens for Fire Safety” and other front groups funded by three bromine producers –  Albemarle, Chemtura and Israeli Chemicals Ltd. –  resulted in a defeat of this bill in March, 2011.  Their main argument was that new flame retardants – similar in structure and properties to the old ones and lacking any health information – were safe.  This despite  opposition which included 30 eloquent firefighters, scientists, physicians and health officers representing thousands of Californians.

Although we stopped most uses of asbestos decades ago, workers and others inadvertently exposed continue to die from its long-term effects.  Let’s not add more chemicals to this sad list.


[5]  Eskenazi, B., et al., “A Comparison of PBDE Serum Concentrations in Mexican and Mexican-American
Children Living in California”,  http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1002874

[6]  Vernier, Marta and Hites, Ronald; “Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in their Food”, Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, 45 (10),  pp4602-4608.  http://pubs.acs.org/action/doSearch?action=search&searchText=PBDE+levels+in+pets&qsSearchArea=searchText&type=within&publication=40025991

[7]  Martin, Andrew, “Chemical Suspected in Cancer is in Baby products”, The New York Times, May 17, 2011.

[8]  Ibid.





FabricsellerA

27 11 2018

A company that sells fabric on line has a post about why they don’t offer Oeko-Tex certification.  Their post is woefully incorrect.

We do not name the company, but call it FabricsellerA. Their post, titled,   Why Oeko-Tex certification is NOT Relevant to American Made Fabrics,  (the entirety of which you can read below at the end of this post) claims that, in America, for American-made fabrics, Oeko-Tex is irrelevant because the US government, primarily in the form of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)   ensures that products made in the USA

“ have met the most stringent, comprehensive American health and safety standards.”  …”which makes them even more rigorous than the OEKO-TEX test criteria. This is why OEKO-TEX certification is not required in the United States. These strict measures guarantee the highest levels of safety, not only for the consumers who use the fabrics, but also for the health and safety of those who make them, and environmental protection…In addition to (our) ongoing mission and commitment to bringing you safe, high-quality products for your use, our fabrics are, of course, CPSIA Compliant. They meet the highest standards of health and safety in the world.”

FabricsellerA is most thoroughly incorrect.

We find that many people really want to believe that America’s product safety and toxicity standards are the most stringent in the world. This is very, very far from the truth. Our protections from exposure to toxic chemicals is completely inadequate.

First we will give you a  visual of just a few of the thousands of chemicals regularly used in textile production with unsavory to scary toxicity profiles, and how the US government and the Oeko-Tex standard compare in protecting us.  Then we will recount in detail how the CPSC,  OSHA, and the EPA  fail to protect us as well as Oeko-Tex does. It is not even close.

First the visual:

 

Chemical or Chemical Class

Does Oeko-Tex limit or prohibit? Does the US Government limit or prohibit?
·       All flame retardants Yes, prohibited No
·       Carcinogenic and allergy-inducing dyes Yes No
·       Chlorinated phenols Yes No
·       Chloro-organic benzenes and toluenes Yes No
Heavy metals:  Lead Yes YES, but limit is 100 times weaker than Oeko-Tex
Heavy metals:  Antimony Yes No
Heavy metals:  Cadmium Yes No
Heavy metals:  Arsenic Yes No
·       Organotin compounds (TBT and DBT) Yes No
·       Formaldehyde Yes No
Pthalates, like BPA Yes, the entire class of many chemicals No, not in fabric.  It does regulate 5 chemicals in this huge class but not in fabric – only in toys and child care products like teething rings.

There are lots more chemicals limited by Oeko-Tex which are not regulated by the US government.  We’ve tried to count, but many of the limits apply to whole classes of chemicals, so we would be under-reporting, but our count ignoring classes (which would greatly increase the number) is 300.

The grand total of chemicals prohibited or limited by the CPSC is two: lead and eight forms of phthalates, which by our count methodology would count as one.

But for a closer examination about why we may want to insist on Oeko-Tex (or, better yet, GOTS, the Global Organic Textile Standard) certification, because of the government failing at this job, let’s start with a look at the CPSC.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)is the agency that regulates the sale and manufacture of consumer products, and ultimately certifies a fabric as compliant and approved for sale in the United States, in accordance with the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).

Before 2014, CPSC regulated only one chemical of the extremely long list of unsavory and toxic chemicals used in the process of fabric production which can, and often do, remain in fabric:  lead.  In 2014 Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement act, which banned three chemicals in the class of phthalates (DEHP, DBP, and BBP) and suggest an expert panel study the banning of two others. In 2017 the panel did ban five others, concluding the ten year effort to ban a small subset of phthalates. (Other very toxic phthalates, including BPA, and the chemical cousins used as substitutes for BPA, are not banned by the feds. Eleven states have bans for baby bottles, and similar products.)

Children’s clothing cannot contain more than 100 parts per million.  Oeko Tex restricts lead to 1 part per million; and Oeko-Tex restricts lead from all fabrics, not just in children’s clothing.

The CPSC does regulate eight phthalates in children’s toys and child care items — like teething rings — but not in fabric in children’s clothes. Children’s toys and care items cannot contain concentrations of more than 0.1% of diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP), dinpentyl phthalate (DPENP), dinhexyl phthalate (DHEXP), or dicyclohexyl phthalate (DCHP).  These kinds of chemicals are usually used to soften plastic and make it more pliable. Exposure to these chemicals by children has been linked with health problems like hormone disruption and damage to reproductive development, among other serious issues.

The CPSIA’s permanent prohibition concerning DEHP, DBP, and BBP remains in effect. Thus, effective April 25, 2018, any children’s toy or child care article that contains concentrations of more than 0.1 percent of the following phthalates is prohibited:

  • di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP),
  • dibutyl phthalate (DBP),
  • benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP),
  • diisononyl phthalate (DINP),
  • diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP),
  • di-n-pentyl phthalate (DPENP),
  • di-n-hexyl phthalate (DHEXP), and
  • dicyclohexyl phthalate (DCHP).

Greenpeace has done work that points out the very large concentrations of phthalates in many popular Disney children’s clothes.  You can read Leigh’s blog on this issue at https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/?s=Toxic+textiles+

The manufacturers may need to limit the few pthalates above, but phthalates are a very large class of chemicals and chemical cousins which are unsavory and can be used interchangeably in their place.

Now on to OSHA. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)is a part of the US Department of Labor.  OSHA is concerned with worker safety, not product safety. OSHA actually requires that any polyester or nylon fabric or any natural fiber fabric have a flame retardant treatment so as not to cause a burn on an employee’s skin. To claim that applying a flame retardant finish adheres to the highest safety standards for consumers or workers is woefully incorrect. The FR chemical profiles are so unsavory that you would never choose to bring them into your home.

We have written about FR chemicals at length in our blog, but allow us to remind you briefly:  To make an intrinsically flame retardant synthetic fiber fabric,  the most common method is to add  brominated flame retardants (BFR’s) to the polymer during the melt phase.     BFR’s are a huge chemical class.  Brominated flame retardants are persistent, accumulate in the food chain, and toxic to both humans and the environment and are suspected of causing neurobehavioral effects, endocrine disruption, cancer and other degenerative diseases.

I’d like to nominate flame retardant chemicals used in our furniture, fabrics and baby products – as well as a host of other products – as being in the running for the new asbestos.  These chemicals are called halogenated flame retardants, such as Polybrominated diphenyl ethers – commonly known as PBDE’s.  Women in North America have 10 to 40 times the levels of the PBDEs in their breast milk, as do women in Europe or in Asia. And these chemicals pass through the placenta and are found in infants at birth, making a double dose of toxins for young children when they are most vulnerable.  When tested in animals, fire retardant chemicals, even at very low doses, can cause endocrine disruption, thyroid disorders, cancer, and developmental, reproductive, and neurological problems such as learning impairment and attention deficit disorder.   In humans, these chemicals are associated with reduced IQ in children, reduced fertility; thyroid impacts, undescended testicles in infants (leading to a higher cancer risk), and decreases in sperm quality and function. Ongoing studies are beginning to show a connection between these chemicals and autism in children.  Pregnant women have the biggest cause for concern because animal studies show negative impacts on brain development of offspring when mothers are exposed during pregnancy. And bioaccumulating PBDEs can stay in our bodies for more than a decade.

A study published last week in the Environmental Health Perspectives  points to California’s unique furniture flammability standard called Technical Bulletin 117, or TB117, as the major reason for high fire retardant levels in California. The California standard, passed in 1975, requires that polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. Because there is no other state or federal standard, many manufacturers comply with the California rule, usually by adding flame retardants with the foam.

The startling and disturbing result of the published study in Environmental Health Perspectives is that Latino children born in California have levels of PBDE in their blood seven times higher  than do children who were born and raised in Mexico. In general, residents of California have higher rates of PBDE in their blood than do people in other parts of the United States.

A home can contain a pound or more of fire retardants that are similar in structure and action to substances such as PCBs and DDT that are widely banned. They leak out from furniture, settle in dust and are taken in by toddlers when they put their hands into their mouths. A paper published in Environmental Science & Technology also finds high fire retardant levels in pet dogs. Cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all.(5)  PBDE use has increased 40% from 1992 to 2003, and is forecast to grow by at least 3% per year from 2011; they are ubiquitous in consumer products.

One troubling example is chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s largely based on research done by Dr. Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist, after it was found to mutate DNA and identified as a probable human carcinogen.  In the journal Environmental Science and Technology, new research published in 2011 shows that chlorinated Tris was found in more than a third of the foam samples tested – products such as nursing pillows, highchairs, car seats and changing pads.

Tris is now being used at high levels in furniture being sold in California to meet the California standard.

The benefits of adding flame retardants have not been proved. Since the 1980s, retardants have been added to California furniture. From 1980 to 2004, fire deaths in states without such a standard declined at a similar rate as they did in California. And when during a fire the retardants burn, they increase the toxicity of the fire, producing dioxins, as well as additional carbon monoxide, soot and smoke, which are the major causes of fire deaths.

So why are we rolling the dice and exposing our children to substances with the potential to cause serious health problems when there is no proven fire safety benefit?

Under current law, it is difficult for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ban or restrict chemicals – current federal oversight of chemicals is so weak that manufacturers are not required to label products with flame retardants nor are they required to list what chemicals are used. Even now, the agency has yet to ban asbestos!

“We can buy things that are BPA free, or phthalate free or lead free. We don’t have the choice to buy things that are flame-retardant free,” says Dr. Heather Stapleton, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University. “The laws protect the chemical industry, not the general public.”  What makes them so bad?

  1. they are persistent:  they bioaccumulate, or build up, in fish and cats and Orcas and foxes – and people.  Our bodies cannot get rid of these contaminates, so our levels just increase over time.  We eat PBDEs when they contaminate our food, particularly meat and dairy products. They latch on to dust and other particles, so we breathe them in, or ingest them when dust settles on food or when children stuff their fingers into their mouths. Scientists look for PBDEs in breast milk because the chemicals stick to fat. In 1999, Swedish researchers reported that PBDE levels in women’s breast milk had increased 60-fold between 1972 and 1997.  Similar dramatic increases were documented in California harbor seals, ringed seals from the Arctic, gull eggs from the Great Lakes and human blood from Norway.   PBDE pollution has been found essentially everywhere scientists have looked: in the tissues of whales, seals, birds and bird eggs, moose, reindeer, mussels, eels, and fish; in human breast milk, hair, fat and blood; in hot dogs and hamburgers and the cheese we put on them;  in twenty different countries and remote areas such as the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Arctic Ocean, on top of mountains and under the sea.
  2. they are fat seeking: this causes them to magnify up the food chain, increasing in concentration at each successively higher  level. Once PBDE’s are released into the environment, they invariably find their way into humans, including pregnant women, where they pass  to the developing fetus in utero or through the breast milk to the nursing infant.  As evidence of fetal exposure, the infant at birth has levels of PBDE’s that are up to 25% of maternal levels.  And researchers have found that children’s PBDE levels are about 2.8 times higher than their mothers. Research in animals shows that exposure to brominated fire retardants in-utero or during infancy leads to more significant harm than exposure during adulthood, and much lower levels of PBDEs are needed to cause harm to infants and children than to adults.
  3. they are endocrine disruptorsMany of the known health effects of PBDEs are thought to stem from their ability to disrupt the body’s thyroid hormone balance, which plays an essential role in brain development.  Laboratory animals showed deficits in learning and memory with exposure to PBDE’s.   Studies of mice showed that a single exposure to PBDEs caused permanent behavioral aberrations that worsened as the mice got older.  One study, for instance, found that women whose levels of T4 measured in the lowest 10 percent of the population during the first trimester of pregnancy were more than 2.5 times as likely to have a child with an IQ of less than 85 (in the lowest 20 percent of the range of IQs) and five times as likely to have a child with an IQ of less than 70, meeting the diagnosis of “mild retardation.”

Personal choices can make a difference. Buying furniture, fabric, cell phones or computers made without PBDEs is definitely a vote for a non-toxic future. But personal choices can only go so far – and the crisis is great.   PBDEs, like other contaminant issues, are at least as much a social as a personal issue and challenge. You can help your kids not only with your buying habits, but also by modeling social action for environmental change, and by campaigning for a non-toxic future, the kind of future where mother’s milk will regain its purity.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) controls chemicals partially through use of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which was amended in 2016.

Although the law contains the words “Toxic Substances” the TSCA law  does not separate chemicals into categories of toxic and non-toxic.  In fact, of the 60,000 chemicals in use in the USA in 1976, the year of the passing of the law, all were grandfathered in as safe to use. These are known as “existing chemicals”.

  1. We assume the TSCA is testing and regulating chemicals used in the industry..It is not:

Of the more than 60,000 existing chemicals  in use prior to 1976, most were “grandfathered in”; only 263 had been tested for safety and only 5 were restricted.  Today over 80,000 chemicals are routinely used in industry, and the number which have been tested for safety in tests required by the EPA has not materially changed since 1976.  So we cannot know the risks of exposing ourselves to certain chemicals.  The default position is that no information about a chemical = no action. (Thank goodness for the European Union. The great progress in the past two decades in determining toxicity and safety of many chemicals is due to their action.)

The chemical spill which occurred in West Virginia in 2014 was of “crude MCHM”, or 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, one of the chemicals that was grandfathered into the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.   That means that nobody knows for sure what that chemical can do to us.

Carcinogenic effects? No information available.

Mutagenic effects? No information available.

Developmental toxicity? No information available.

Lack of information is the reason the local and federal authorities were so unsure of how to advise the local population about their drinking water supplies.  (And by the way, in January, 2014, a federal lawsuit was filed in Charleston, WV, which claims that the manufacturer of MCHM hid “highly toxic and carcinogenic properties” of components of MCHM, hexane and methanol, both of which have been tested and found to cause diseases such as cancer.)

I found claims he EPA has been successful in restricting only nine chemicals of the 60,000 that were grandfathered in as permissible “existing Chemicals”  (PCBs, chlorofluorocarbons, dioxin, asbestos, and hexavalent chromium) in its 38-year history, with the ban on asbestos being overturned in 1991.

Until 2016 none of those chemicals were required to be tested for safety. The 2016 revision of the law requires some existing chemicals to be tested for safety, and gives deadlines for the evaluation. The first ten chemicals to be assessed as specifically required by the 2016 revisions are:

  • Asbestos
  • 1-Bromopropane
  • Carbon Tetrachloride
  • 1,4 Dioxane
  • Cyclic Aliphatic Bromide Cluster (HBCD)
  • Methylene Chloride
  • N-Methylpyrrolidone
  • Perchloroethylene
  • Pigment Violet 29
  • Trichloroethylene

But don’t hold your breath.  Take one of the above list:  Methylene Chloride.  The EPA assessed it beginning in 2014 and proposed a ban – at least from paint removers – in 2017, stating that the chemical posed “unnecessary risks” to people. The European Union had taken this step in 2011.  The EPA keeps delaying the ban, and has weakened it by removing one of 2 toxic chemicals in the proposed ban to just one.

Slate has an informative account of the current issue, “A Chemical in Paint Remover is A Known Killer: Why Won’t the EPA Ban It?” in which you can get a taste of the many years the EPA can delay an action or change one, even after announcing and committing to it:

https://slate.com/technology/2018/03/will-the-epa-ban-methylene-chloride.html

The Environmental Defense Fund has a good blog whose almost every entry is a repudiation of what FabricSellerA  claims about American manufacture of products being safe because of the federal government. The EDF has an interesting story about PCB’s, which Congress specifically outlawed in  1979; and how action and inaction by the EPA has allowed variants of PCBs to be still used and sold in the US now, even after the 2016 TSCA revisions:

http://blogs.edf.org/health/2018/09/28/have-we-learned-anything-in-the-last-4-decades-when-it-comes-to-allowing-chemicals-like-pcbs-onto-the-market/#more-8177

  1. We assume that the TSCA requires manufacturers to demonstrate that their chemicals are safe before they go into use. It does not:
    1. The EPA requires a “Premanufacture Notification” of a new chemical, and no data of any kind is required.   The EPA receives between 40-50 each week and 8 out of 10 are approved, with or without test data, with no restrictions on their proposed use. As 3M puts it on their PMN forms posted on EPA’s web site, “You are not required to submit the listed test data if you do not have it.”
    2. The TSCA says the government has to prove actual harm caused by the chemical in question before any controls can be put in place.  The catch-22 is that chemical companies don’t have to develop toxicity data or submit it to the EPA for an existing product unless the agency finds out that it will pose a risk to humans or the environment – which is difficult to do if there is no data in the first place.  Lack of evidence of harm is taken as evidence of no harm.
    3. We assume that manufacturers must list all ingredients in a product, so if we have an allergy or reaction to certain chemicals we can check to see if the product is free of those chemicals. It does not.

The TSCA allows chemical manufacturers to keep ingredients in some products secret.   Nearly 20% of the 80,000 chemicals in use today are considered “trade secrets”.  This makes it impossible for consumers to find out what’s actually in a product.  And there is no time limit on the period in which a chemical can be considered a trade secret.

These limitations all help to perpetuate the chemical industry’s failure to innovate toward safer chemical and product design.  It’s one of the reasons the USA is one of the few nations in the world in which asbestos is not banned.  The EPA has issued regulations to control only 9 chemicals since the enactment of TSCA and the EPA has assessed the risks of only about 2% of the chemicals in use.

On June 22, 2016, President Obama signed the bill that reforms the Toxic Substances Control Act.  It was widely agreed that the TSCA is not doing the job of protecting us, and that the United States is in need of profound change in this area. The chemicals market values function, price and performance over safety, which poses a barrier to the scientific and commercial success of green chemistry in the United States and could ultimately hinder the U.S. chemical industry’s competitiveness in the global marketplace as green technologies accelerate under the European Union’s requirements.

we presumably would have an EPA with a mandate to review all chemicals in commerce, the authority to readily get the data it needs, and the resources required to execute the kind of comprehensive prioritization scheme ACC proposes.

So far the improvements in the 2016 revision have not resulted in any safety testing being accomplished, but rather the establishment of a horrendous bureaucracy for evaluation which chemicals need to be evaluated after the first 30 which were mandated.

We cover above the chemicals outlawed in various products by US regulators. There are not many – and most are not regulated in the end usage of fabric at all.   Here are the requirements for fabrics – mostly applying to children:

  • Section 101(a) of the CPSIA restricts children’s products, including children’s apparel and sleepwear, to a lead content limit of 100 parts per million (ppm). In addition, the use of paint or similar surface coating on children’s apparel and sleepwear must not exceed a lead content limit of 90 ppm. That compares to the Oeko-Tex 100andGOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) requirement that the lead content be 2 ppm.
  • Section 108 of CPSIA states that children’s toys and child care articles cannot contain more that 0.1% of six phthalates – DEHP, DBP, BBP limits are applicable to both toys and child care items while DINP, DIDP, and DnOP limits are applicable only to toys that can be placed in the mouth and are intended for children 3 and younger. Although children’s clothing does not need to be certified to this requirement, children’s sleepwear or bibs (child care article) intended for children age 3 years or younger and any children’s textile product that is intended for use in play (toy) must be certified to the phthalates requirements. In comparison to Oeko-Tex 100 and GOTS, all phthalates are prohibited.
  • Textiles used in apparel must meet class 1 or 2 flammability requirements. Children’s sleepwear must be flame resistant and self-extinguish when exposed to a small ignition source. The rules cover all children’s sleepwear between size 9 months and size 14. The fabric, seams, trim, and garments must pass certain flammability tests or the garment must be tight-fitting as defined by specified dimensions. ( See our blog post on flame retardants , published in May, 2013) But this rule means that toxic chemicals are often added to children’s sleepwear – not kept out of it.

What does this mean? It means that the United States has basically no protection for consumers in terms of textiles.

So, I have many bones to pick with FabricsellerA, who ignores the weak protections that the federal government provides to protect us from the real safety issues from fabric production and chemicals residual in the fabric that is everywhere around us.  The United States has precious few protections for consumers or for workers regarding fabric safety issues while Oeko-Tex does an excellent job of protecting consumers of fabric, though not workers.

The Unabridged Post: from FabricsellerA:

FabricsellerA consumers are savvy consumers. We often receive inquiries from our customers asking if FabricsellerA fabrics are OEKO-TEX certified. They are not OEKO-TEX certified, and here’s why this is a good thing:

 OEKO-TEX® is an international association headquartered in Europe, comprised of independent research and test laboratories – focused on the textile industry – which certifies that fabrics meet safety standards for consumer use. OEKO-TEX 100 is the organization’s global testing and certification program that ensures textile products are tested for more than 300 harmful chemicals.

 It’s often difficult for resellers of fabrics made in China, India, or other countries, to discern how the fabrics are being made, and what chemicals are being used in their manufacture. That’s why it’s important that the fabrics they sell have an OEKO-TEX certificate or equivalent; this indicates that the fabrics meet strict health and safety standards, and are safe to use. For the benefit of consumers there is an online directory that lists all products, companies, and brands that are OEKO-TEX certified

 While OEKO-TEX certification is a stringent process, many of the requirements for this certification are not applicable to our American-made products. That’s why FabricsellerA fabrics are not OEKO-TEX certified—because our fabrics are made right here in the USA . We adhere to the even more demanding American health and safety standards, and ensure that no harmful chemicals are used in the production of our fabrics.

 In the United States, all the fabric manufacturers, including FabricsellerA, produce their fabrics under the safety guidelines and regulations set forth by several government agencies. These agencies include the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA)and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

 The CPSC is the agency that regulates the sale and manufacture of consumer products, and ultimately certifies a fabric as compliant and approved for sale in the United States, in accordance with the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). The CPSIA compliance certification ensures that the products you use every day have met the most stringent, comprehensive American health and safety standards.

 Fabrics made or sold in America must not only meet CPSIA requirements, but manufacturing must comply with EPA, OSHA, and other regulations, which makes themeven more rigorous than the OEKO-TEX test criteria. This is why OEKO-TEX certification is not required in the United States. These strict measures guarantee the highest levels of safety, not only for the consumers who use the fabrics, but also for the health and safety of those who make them, and environmental protection.

 In addition to FabricsellerA’s ongoing mission and commitment to bringing you safe, high-quality products for your use, our fabrics are, of course, CPSIA Compliant. They meet the highest standards of health and safety in the world.

 END POST

[1]On average, 78% of the weight of a fabric is the fiber it purports to be, and 22% is residual chemicals.  W. Baumann, K. Lacasse, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 2004

[2]If you don’t know what flame retardants can do to you, please see our blog https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/?s=pbde

 (3) Some of the more common BFR’s are: Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s):  besides PBDE, the group includes DecaBDE, OctaBDE and PentaBDE (neither Octa nor Penta is manufactured anymore); Polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) – also not manufactured anymore; Brominated cyclohydrocarbons

[4]Martin, Andrew, “Chemical Suspected in Cancer is in Baby products”, The New York Times, May 17, 2011.

[5]Vernier, Marta and Hites, Ronald; “Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in their Food”, Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, 45 (10), pp4602-4608. http://pubs.acs.org/action/doSearchaction=search&searchText=PBDE+levels+in+pets&qsSearchArea=searchText&type=within

 

 





Polyurethane

31 10 2018

The most popular type of cushion filler today is polyurethane foam. Also known as “Polyfoam”, it has been the standard fill in most furniture since its wide scale introduction in the 1960’s because of its low cost (really cheap!).  A staggering 2.1 billion pounds of flexible polyurethane foam is produced every year in the US alone.[1]  Before plastics, our grandparents filled cushions with feathers, horsehair, wool or cotton batting – even straw (one of the earliest stuffing materials). This stuff often shifted, meaning that you’d have to plump up the feathers, horsehair or batting to make the sofa look, and feel, good.  But with the advent of plastics, our lives changed.  Polyurethane foam was introduced as a cushion component in furniture in 1957 –  only a bit more than 55 years ago – and quickly replaced latex, excelsior, cotton batting, horsehair and wool because it was CHEAP and it behaved!  Imagine – polyfoam cushions at $2 vs. natural latex at $7 or $8.  Price made all the difference.  Today, Eisenberg Upholstery’s website says that “easily 25% of all furniture repairs I see deal with bad foam or padding. The point is: start with good foam and you won’t be sorry.”

But polyurethane foam has some downright troubling aspects, besides its chemical makeup. It has a tendency to break down rapidly, resulting in lumpy cushions, and poor porosity (giving it a tendency to trap moisture which results in mold) – neither of which we want in our cushions. It also emits methyloxirane and toluene diisocyante (TDI), both of which are carcinogens.  An average queen size mattress made from polyurethane loses half its weight over ten years.

As Len Laycock explained in his series “Killing You Softly”, once upon a time, household dust was just a nuisance. Today, however, house dust represents a time capsule of all the chemicals that enter people’s homes. “This includes particles created from the break down of polyurethane foam. From sofas and chairs, to shoes and carpet underlay, sources of polyurethane dust are plentiful. Organotin[2]compounds are one of the chemical groups found in household dust that have been linked to polyurethane foam. Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development.

“Since most people spend a majority of their time indoors, there is ample opportunity for frequent and prolonged exposure to the dust and its load of contaminants.”

Polyurethane foams are advertised as being recyclable, and most manufacturing scraps (i.e., post industrial) are virtually all recycled – yet the products from this waste have limited applications (such as carpet backing).  Post consumer, the product is difficult to recycle, and the sheer volume of scrap foam that is generated (mainly due to old cushions) is greater than the rate at which it can be recycled – so it mostly ends up at the landfill.  This recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals.

It is also extremely flammable, so flame-retardant chemicals are added to its production when it is used in mattresses and upholstered furniture.   This application of chemicals does not alleviate all concerns associated with its flammability, since polyurethane foam releases a number of toxic substances at different temperature stages. For example, at temperatures of about 800 degrees, polyurethane foam begins to rapidly decompose, releasing gases and compounds such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, acetronitrile, acrylonitrile, pyridine, ethylene, ethane, propane, butadine, propinitrile, acetaldehyde, methylacrylonitrile, benzene, pyrrole, toluene, methyl pyridine, methyl cyanobenzene, naphthalene, quinoline, indene, and carbon dioxide.

According to the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, polyurethane foam in furniture is responsible for 30 percent of U.S. deaths from fires each year.

It is made from crude oil.

In conclusion, the benefits of polyfoam (low cost) is far outweighed by the disadvantages:  being made from a non-renewable resource (oil), and the toxicity of main chemical components as well as the toxicity of the flame retardants added to the foam – not to mention the fact that even the best foams begin to break down after around 10 – 12 years of “normal use”.[3]

Pretending to offer a ‘soy-based’ foam allows some corporations to cloak themselves in a green blanket and masquerade as environmentally responsible corporations when in practice they are not. By highlighting small petroleum savings, they conveniently distract the public from the fact that this product’s manufacture and use continues to threaten human health and poses serious disposal problems. Aside from replacing a small portion of petroleum polyols, the production of polyurethane based foams with soy added continues to rely heavily on ‘the workhorse of the polyurethane foam industry’, cancer causing toluene diisocyanate (TDI). So it remains ‘business as usual’ for polyurethane manufacturers.

Despite what polyurethane foam and furniture companies imply, soy foam is not biodegradable either. Buried in the footnotes on their website, Cargill quietly acknowledges that, “foams made with BiOH polyols are not more biodegradable than traditional petroleum-based cushioning”. Those ever so carefully phrased words are an admission that all polyurethane foams, with or without soy added, simply cannot biodegrade. And so they will languish in our garbage dumps, leach into our water, and find their way into the soft tissue of young children, contaminating and compromising life long after their intended use.

The current marketing of polyurethane foam and furniture made with ‘soy foam’ is merely a page out the tobacco industry’s current ‘greenwashing’ playbook. Like a subliminal message, the polyurethane foam and furniture industries are using the soothing words and images of the environmental movement to distract people from the known negative health and environmental impacts of polyurethane foam manufacture, use and disposal.

To avoid the problems associated with polyurethane foam, Global Organic Latex Standard certified latex is the ticket.  Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant.  It is not highly flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test.  It has little or no off-gassing  associated with it.  Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a  smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams [3]),  and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam. It is breathable, healthier (totally nontoxic) and lasts longer than polyurethane foam – some reports say up to 20 times longer.

So what’s a poor consumer to do?  We think there is a viable, albeit expensive, product choice: natural latex (rubber). The word “latex” can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. This product can be 100% natural (natural latex) or 100% man-made (derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two – the so called “natural latex”. Also, remember latex is rubber and rubber is latex.

  • Natural latex – The raw material for  natural latex comes from a renewable resource – it is obtained from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning.  Rubber trees are cultivated, mainly in South East Asia,  through a new planting and replanting program by large scale plantation and small farmers to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural  latex.  Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant.  It is not highly  flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test.  It has little or no off-gassing associated with it.    Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a  smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams[4]),  and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam.
  • Synthetic latex – The terminology is very confusing, because synthetic latex is often referred to simply as  “latex” or even “100% natural latex”.  It is also known as styrene-butadiene rubber  (SBR).   The chemical styrene is toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain; the EPA finds nervous system effects such as depression, loss of concentration and a potential for cancer.[5] Synthetic additives are added to achieve stabilization.    Often however, synthetic latex can be made of combinations of polyurethane and natural latex, or a combination of 70% natural latex and 30% SBR.  Most stores sell one of these versions under the term “natural latex” – so caveat emptor!    Being petroleum based, the source of supply for the production of synthetic latex is certainly non-sustainable and diminishing as well.

Natural latex is breathable, biodegradable, healthier (i.e., totally nontoxic, and mold & mildew proof) and lasts longer than polyurethane – some reports say up to 20 times longer.

[1]DFE 2008 Office Chair Foam;  http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

[2]These include Tributyltin, Trimethyltin, Triphenyltin, Tetrabutyltin, Tricyclohexyltin, Trioctyltin, Tripropyltin, Dibutyltin, Dioctyltin, Dimethyltin, Monobutyltin, Monoctyltin

[3]http://www.foamforyou.com/Foam_Specs.htm

[4][3] Op cit., http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

[5]Technical Fact Sheet on: Styrene; Environmental Protection Agency; http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw/pdfs/factsheets/voc/tech/styrene.pdf

 





Nichlos Kristof gets it!

24 04 2018

Nicholas Kristof had an editorial in the New York Times on February 25, 2018. This is a reproduction of his editorial:

 Our bodies are full of poisons from products we use every day. I know – I’ve had my urine tested for them. Surprised? So was I when I had my urine tested for these chemicals. (A urine or blood test is needed to confirm whether you have been exposed.)

Let me stress that mine should have been clean.

Almost a decade ago, I was shaken by my reporting! on a class of toxic chemicals called endocrine disruptors. They are linked to cancer and obesity and also seemed to feminize males, so that male alligators developed stunted genitalia and male smallmouth bass produced eggs.

In humans, endocrine disruptors were linked to two-headed sperm and declining sperm counts. They also were blamed for an increase in undescended testicles and in a birth defect called hypospadias, in which the urethra exits the side or base of the penis rather than the tip. Believe me, the scariest horror stories are found in urology journals. If you’re a man, you don’t wring your hands as you read; you clutch your crotch.

So I’ve tried for years now to limit my exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Following the advice of the President’s Cancer Panel, I eat organic to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors in pesticides. I try to store leftover meals in glass containers, not plastic. I avoid handling A.T.M. and gas station receipts. I try to avoid flame-retardant furniture.

Those are all common sources of toxic endocrine disruptors, so I figured that my urine would test pristine. Pure as a mountain creek.

                        Here are 12 chemicals found in everyday products:

Chemical Details Found in products like:
Antimicrobials Can interfere with thyroid and other hormones Colgate Total toothpaste, soap, deodorant
Benzophenones Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Sunscreen, lotions, lip balm
Bisphenols Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Protective lining for canned goods, hard plastic water bottles, thermal paper register receipts.
1,4-Dichlorobenzene Can affect thyroid hormones and my increase risk of cancer Mothballs, toilet deodorizers
Parabens Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Cosmetics, personal care products like shampoos, hair gels, lotions
Phthalates Can disrupt male reproductive development and fertility

 

Vinyl shower curtains, fast food, nail polish, perfume/cologne
Fragrance Chemicals Can exacerbate asthma symptoms and disrupt natural hormones. Perfume/cologne, cleaning products, dryer sheets, air fresheners
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) Can affect hormones, immune response in children, and may increase risk of cancer. Scotchgard and other stain-resistant treatments, fast-food wrappers.
Flame Retardants Can affect neurodevelopment and hormone levels, and may increase risk of cancer Nail polish, foam cushioning in furniture, rigid foam insulation.

The Silent Spring Institute near Boston, which studies chemical safety, offers a “Detox Me Action Kit” to help consumers determine what harmful substances are in their bodies. Following instructions, I froze two urine samples (warning my wife and kids that day to be careful what food they grabbed from the freezer) and Fed-Exed them off for analysis.

By the way, the testing is for women, too. Men may wince as they read about miniaturized alligator penises, but endocrine disruptors have also been linked to breast cancer and gynecological cancers. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warns women that endocrine disruptors can also cause miscarriages, fetal defects and much more.[1]

As I waited for the lab results, I continued to follow the latest research. One researcher sent a bizarre video of a mouse exposed to a common endocrine disruptor doing back flips nonstop, as a kind of nervous tic.

Finally, I heard back from Silent Spring Institute. I figured this was a report card I had aced. I avoid all that harmful stuff. In my columns, I had advised readers how to avoid it.

Sure enough, I had a low level of BPA, best known because plastic bottles now often boast “BPA Free.” But even a diligent student like me failed the test. Badly. I had high levels of a BPA substitute called BPF. Ruthann Rudel, a toxicologist who is the head of research at Silent Spring, explained that companies were switching to BPF even though it may actually be yet more harmful (it takes longer for the body to break it down). BPF is similar to that substance that made those mice do back flips.

“These types of regrettable substitutions — when companies remove a chemical that has a widely known bad reputation and substitute a little-known bad actor in its place — are all too common,” Rudel told me. “Sometimes we environmental scientists think we are playing a big game of whack-a-mole with the chemical companies.”

Sigh. I thought I was being virtuous by avoiding plastics with BPA, but I may have been causing my body even more damage.

My urine had an average level of an endocrine disruptor called triclosan, possibly from soap or toothpaste. Like most people, I also had chlorinated phenols (perhaps from mothballs in my closet).

I had a high level of a flame retardant called triphenyl phosphate, possibly from a floor finish, which may be “neurotoxic.” Hmm. Whenever you see flaws in my columns, that’s just my neurotoxins at work.

                            My lab results: high levels of FOUR chemicals were found

CHEMICAL DETAILS
1,4- DICHLOROBENZENE Can affect thyroid hormones and may increase risk of cancer
ANTIMICROBIALS Can interfere with thyroid and other hormones
BISPHENOLS Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen
FLAME RETARDANTS Can affect neurodevelopment and hormone levels, and may increase risk of cancer
BENZOPHENONES Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen
PARABENS Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen

Notes: Benzophenones and parabens were also found, but in lower levels than in most Americans. Tests for phthalates and fragrance chemicals were not included.

Will these endocrine disruptors give me cancer? Make me obese? Make my genitals fall off? Nobody really knows. At least I haven’t started doing random back flips yet.

The steps I took did help, and I recommend that others consult consumer guides such as at ewg.org to reduce their exposures to toxic chemicals. Likewise, if I had downloaded the Detox Me smartphone app, I would have known to get rid of those mothballs, along with air fresheners and scented candles. (Science lesson: A less fragrant house means cleaner pee.)

Yet my takeaway is also that chemical industry lobbyists have rigged the system so that we consumers just can’t protect ourselves adequately.

“You should not have to be a Ph.D toxicologist to be safe from so many of the chemicals in use,” Dr. Richard Jackson of U.C.L.A. told me. “So much of what we are exposed to is poorly tested and even less regulated.”

The Trump administration has magnified the problem by relaxing regulation of substances like chlorpyrifos, Dow Chemical’s nerve gas pesticide. The swamp has won.

So the saddest lesson is that even if you understand the peril and try to protect yourself and your family — as I strongly suggest you do — your body may still be tainted. The chemical companies spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying and have gotten the lightest regulation that money can buy.

They are running the show, and we consumers are their lab mice.

[1] “Exposure to Toxic Environmental Agents”, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, University of California San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.





What Poisons are in your body?

7 03 2018

Nicholas Kristof had an editorial in the New York Times on February 25, 2018.  This is a reproduction of his editorial:

Our bodies are full of poisons from products we use every day. I know – I’ve had my urine tested for them.  Surprised? So was I when I had my urine tested for these chemicals. (A urine or blood test is needed to confirm whether you have been exposed.)

Let me stress that mine should have been clean.

Almost a decade ago, I was shaken by my reporting on a class of toxic chemicals called endocrine disruptors. They are linked to cancer and obesity and also seemed to feminize males, so that male alligators developed stunted genitalia and male smallmouth bass produced eggs.

In humans, endocrine disruptors were linked to two-headed sperm and declining sperm counts. They also were blamed for an increase in undescended testicles and in a birth defect called hypospadias, in which the urethra exits the side or base of the penis rather than the tip.  Believe me, the scariest horror stories are found in urology journals. If you’re a man, you don’t wring your hands as you read; you clutch your crotch.

So I’ve tried for years now to limit my exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Following the advice of the President’s Cancer Panel, I eat organic to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors in pesticides. I try to store leftover meals in glass containers, not plastic. I avoid handling A.T.M. and gas station receipts. I try to avoid flame-retardant furniture.

Those are all common sources of toxic endocrine disruptors, so I figured that my urine would test pristine. Pure as a mountain creek.

                                       12 Chemicals found in everyday products

Chemical Details Found in products like:
ANTIMICROBIALS Can interfere with thyroid and other hormones Colgate Total toothpaste, soap, deodorant
BENZOPHENONES Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Sunscreen, lotions, lip balm
BISPHENOLS Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Protective lining for canned goods, hard plastic water bottles, thermal paper register receipts
1,4-DICHLOROBENZENE Can affect thyroid hormones and may increase risk of cancer Mothballs, toilet deodorizers
PARABENS Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Cosmetics, personal care products like shampoos, hair gels, lotions
PHTHALATES Can disrupt male reproductive development and fertility Vinyl shower curtains, fast food, nail polish, perfume/cologne
PER- AND POLYFLUOROALKYL SUBSTANCES (PFAS) Can affect hormones, immune response in children, and may increase risk of cancer Scotchgard and other stain-resistant treatments, fast-food wrappers
FLAME RETARDANTS Can affect neurodevelopment and hormone levels, and may increase risk of cancer Nail polish, foam cushioning in furniture, rigid foam insulation
FRAGRANCE CHEMICALS Can exacerbate asthma symptoms and disrupt natural hormones Perfume/cologne, cleaning products, dryer sheets, air fresheners

The Silent Spring Institute near Boston, which studies chemical safety, offers a “Detox Me Action Kit” to help consumers determine what harmful substances are in their bodies. Following instructions, I froze two urine samples (warning my wife and kids that day to be careful what food they grabbed from the freezer) and Fed-Exed them off for analysis.

By the way, the testing is for women, too. Men may wince as they read about miniaturized alligator penises, but endocrine disruptors have also been linked to breast cancer and gynecological cancers. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warns women that endocrine disruptors can also cause miscarriages, fetal defects and much more.

As I waited for the lab results, I continued to follow the latest research. One researcher sent a bizarre video of a mouse exposed to a common endocrine disruptor doing back flips nonstop, as a kind of nervous tic.

Finally, I heard back from Silent Spring Institute. I figured this was a report card I had aced. I avoid all that harmful stuff. In my columns, I had advised readers how to avoid it.

Sure enough, I had a low level of BPA, best known because plastic bottles now often boast “BPA Free.”

But even a diligent student like me failed the test. Badly. I had high levels of a BPA substitute called BPF. Ruthann Rudel, a toxicologist who is the head of research at Silent Spring, explained that companies were switching to BPF even though it may actually be yet more harmful (it takes longer for the body to break it down). BPF is similar to that substance that made those mice do back flips.

“These types of regrettable substitutions — when companies remove a chemical that has a widely known bad reputation and substitute a little-known bad actor in its place — are all too common,” Rudel told me. “Sometimes we environmental scientists think we are playing a big game of whack-a-mole with the chemical companies.”

Sigh. I thought I was being virtuous by avoiding plastics with BPA, but I may have been causing my body even more damage.

My urine had an average level of an endocrine disruptor called triclosan, possibly from soap or toothpaste. Like most people, I also had chlorinated phenols (perhaps from mothballs in my closet).

I had a high level of a flame retardant called triphenyl phosphate, possibly from a floor finish, which may be “neurotoxic.” Hmm. Whenever you see flaws in my columns, that’s just my neurotoxins at work.

My lab results: high levels of FOUR chemicals were found

CHEMICAL DETAILS
1,4- DICHLOROBENZENE Can affect thyroid hormones and may increase risk of cancer
ANTIMICROBIALS Can interfere with thyroid and other hormones
BISPHENOLS Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen
FLAME RETARDANTS Can affect neurodevelopment and hormone levels, and may increase risk of cancer
BENZOPHENONES Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen
PARABENS Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen

Notes: Benzophenones and parabens were also found, but in lower levels than in most Americans. Tests for phthalates and fragrance chemicals were not included.

Will these endocrine disruptors give me cancer? Make me obese? Make my genitals fall off? Nobody really knows. At least I haven’t started doing random back flips yet.

The steps I took did help, and I recommend that others consult consumer guides such as at ewg.org to reduce their exposures to toxic chemicals. Likewise, if I had downloaded the Detox Me smartphone app, I would have known to get rid of those mothballs, along with air fresheners and scented candles. (Science lesson: A less fragrant house means cleaner pee.)

Yet my takeaway is also that chemical industry lobbyists have rigged the system so that we consumers just can’t protect ourselves adequately.

“You should not have to be a Ph.D toxicologist to be safe from so many of the chemicals in use,” Dr. Richard Jackson of U.C.L.A. told me. “So much of what we are exposed to is poorly tested and even less regulated.”

The Trump administration has magnified the problem by relaxing regulation of substances like chlorpyrifos, Dow Chemical’s nerve gas pesticide. The swamp has won.

So the saddest lesson is that even if you understand the peril and try to protect yourself and your family — as I strongly suggest you do — your body may still be tainted. The chemical companies spend tens of millions of dollars  lobbying and have gotten the lightest regulation that money can buy.

They are running the show, and we consumers are their lab mice.