February 17, 2020

Protect health, not a cash cow

Raging home fires in paid TV advertisements? Full-page color ads crying “False Alarm”? The bromine chemical industry is pulling out all stops to ensure that Maine is a “safer” place. Or are they? That’s the same message that failed to convince Washington state legislators. Earlier this month, they voted to ban decaBDE, a chemical flame retardant that the bromine chemical industry wants to keep selling in Maine.

To protect children’s health and the environment, Maine banned two related chemicals three years ago, and adopted a goal to phase out decaBDE. This January, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention submitted an in-depth report to the Legislature on the toxicity of decaBDE, and the availability of safer alternatives. The DEP concluded that Maine should ban decaBDE in televisions and other consumer electronics, and in mattresses and upholstered furniture, targeting the uses most likely to expose families and children in their homes. House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree and state Sen. Dana Dow’s bill, LD 1658, would do just that, and should be enacted.

Brominated flame retardants, or PBDEs, have been a cash cow for the bromine chemical industry for several decades: cheap to produce and easy to impregnate in the plastics in computers and TVs. The industry had hopes of moving into a new and lucrative market – upholstered furniture. Think of it – spending the evening on the couch in front of the TV, cushioned in a neurotoxin.

The fact is, not a single manufacturer of furniture, mattresses, computers or televisions showed up at the public hearing to argue against the proposed ban. They don’t need this chemical. Maine doesn’t either. The cash cow is beginning to wobble on its legs and foam at the mouth.

PBDEs, as the DEP and CDC reported, have “captured the immediate attention of scientists and policymakers because levels in the environment and humans have increased exponentially. … During the last 30 years, PBDE levels in humans have doubled about every 3 to 5 years.” More than 180 peer-reviewed scientific studies have concluded that decaBDE is a problem. Studies in Maine and elsewhere indicate that decaBDE delays brain development and causes adult learning and behavior problems in lab animals exposed early in life.

DecaBDE can degrade into related, already banned chemicals that are even more toxic and easily absorbed by humans and wildlife. A 2006 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that “children are at higher risk for PBDE exposures and, accordingly, face higher risks of PBDE-related health effects than adults.” Children pick up decaBDE mostly from eating and breathing contaminated house dust.

Virtually the entire computer industry and the leading television makers already use safer alternatives that meet the highest fire safety standards without the use of decaBDE. Furniture and mattresses do not require decaBDE to ensure fire safety.

Another group of Mainers are at particular risk from decaBDE: firefighters, who have joined in support of the proposed ban. Burning of PBDEs, including decaBDE, has been demonstrated in peer-reviewed research to produce breakdown products that cause cancer and are toxic to the endocrine (hormone) and immune systems. To enter a burning building these days is to face not just the scourge of fire but also a potent cocktail of toxic chemicals.

You may ask yourself, why has this toxic cash cow been producing profits for so many years?

The answer is a failure of law, specifically of the misleadingly named federal Toxics Substances Control Act, a 30-year-old dinosaur that was fatally defective when it first hatched in 1976. This legislation is characterized in the environmental law textbook that I teach from as “perhaps the most complex, confusing and ineffective of all of our federal environmental protection statutes.” Numerous recent analyses, including by the federal Government Accountability Office (2005) and the University of California (2006), have detailed the inadequacies of this legislation. In Maine, the January 2007 Interim Report of the Governor’s Task Force Promoting Safer Chemicals in Consumer Products concluded that ToSCA “is inadequate to ensure the safety of chemicals in commerce … and fails to create incentives to develop safer alternatives.”

In the long run, we must fix our broken system of chemicals regulation in the U.S. In the short run, we must quarantine this toxic cash cow.

Sharon Tisher teaches environmental law at the University of Maine and is president of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

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