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Flame retardant might join state's list of carcinogens

Doug Shick/ FlickrThe state will consider adding a flame retardant banned from kids' pajamas in the 1970s to its list of carcinogens.

State officials will decide tomorrow whether to add a widely used flame retardant to the state's list of cancer-causing chemicals.

The chemical, chlorinated Tris [PDF], was removed from children’s pajamas in 1977 over fears that it could cause cancer. It is now the nation’s most commonly used flame retardant in furniture foam and baby products.

Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [PDF] and Consumer Product Safety Commission [PDF] have declared the chemical carcinogenic.

“Flame retardants like Tris leach out of furniture and end up in the dust in our homes,” said Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and one of the scientists whose toxicology research in the 1970s got the chemical removed from kids’ pajamas.

“We unknowingly inhale and ingest Tris into our bodies,” said Blum, who also leads the Green Science Policy Institute, an environmental group based in Berkeley.

The chemical has been associated with cancer in factory workers and laboratory animals, as well as low sperm counts in men exposed to Tris in household dust.

Manufacturers of the chemical say there is not enough evidence showing the chemical causes cancer in people and therefore should not be listed as a carcinogen under Proposition 65 requirements.

Proposition 65, or the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, was enacted as a ballot initiative in 1986. It was designed to protect the state's residents and their drinking water from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. The initiative requires the governor to publish a list every year of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.

The criteria used by the state’s Carcinogen Identification Committee – the science advisory panel to the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment – to list a chemical as carcinogenic is as follows:

A chemical is known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity … if in the opinion of the state’s qualified experts it has been clearly shown through scientifically valid testing according to generally accepted principles to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.

The state will not ban Tris if the committee finds that it is carcinogenic, but it would require a warning, said Sam Delson, deputy director for external and legislative affairs for the environmental hazard office.

That requirement stipulates that consumers must be warned before buying a product that it contains chemicals that may cause cancer or reproductive harm. This is generally done with a prominent label on the product.

The office received more than 670 comments, the vast majority in favor of putting the chemical on the list. Two comment submitters were opposed to listing it. They said evidence to support a connection between the chemical and human cancer was lacking.

Albemarle, the largest producer of chlorinated Tris, could not be reached for comment.

Blum said that if the chemical is listed, it is likely furniture manufacturers will substitute it with other chemicals that may be equally, or more, dangerous.

That's because California has the strictest flammability standards in the nation, and furniture sold in the state must adhere to the standard. To meet it, furniture manufacturers tend to use flame retardant chemicals.

However, Blum said furniture and foam could be made without the chemicals and therefore "without the toxicity problem."

In addition, while the chemicals may give you only a few more seconds before burning – they delay ignition – they'll also give you more toxicity.

"The treated products burn after a few seconds," Blum said. "It's the toxic gases from the chemicals that cause most fire deaths and injuries."

The meeting will be held at California's Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Sacramento today and tomorrow. The other chemical up for review: fluoride.

Filed under: Environment, Daily Report

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