Monday, October 29, 2012

C&EN on flame retardants

This week in C&EN, a great set of articles on (drumroll) flame retardants. It makes for some pretty interesting reading, especially William Schulz's profile of Dr. Arlene Blum, one of the most prominent activists (and chemists -- she did her doctorate with Bruce Ames) against brominated flame retardants:
Fire-safety experts and other people who oppose Blum’s campaign—and who have called for a more reasoned analysis of the fire-safety science on flame retardants—say she brushes them aside as disqualified to provide expert opinion because of current, previous, or inconsequential chemical industry ties. They say Blum and her supporters shout them down at public workshops or refuse to engage in dialogue over the issues and the science. Worse, they say, Blum is promoting false information about fire safety from flame retardants via a high-visibility media campaign that stokes fear of chemicals that have been used for decades and have saved the lives of tens of thousands of people in the U.S. who have been the victims of home fires... 
[snip] Blum and other scientists insist that a growing body of evidence indicates that the brominated flame-retardant chemicals used in upholstered furniture may, in some cases, be endocrine disrupters or have neurological and other health effects that make them unacceptable for use in everyday objects like sofas and chairs. Such flame retardants, she says, tend to accumulate in tissues and have been detected in the blood of adults and children. 
“There are some 3,700 peer-reviewed papers on flame-retardant chemicals’ toxicity,” Blum says emphatically. Children especially, she says, should have very limited—if any—exposure to compounds that might damage their physical and intellectual development or leave them more vulnerable to other chronic health problems...
[snip] When asked if there could be differing interpretations of what is a large and complex body of data on the efficacy of flame retardants, Blum snaps, “I am not a fire scientist. This is such a broad field. There are about 10 disciplines involved.” 
Blum says that other ways to prevent deaths from upholstered-furniture fires—improved building codes, reduced cigarette smoking, and increased use of sprinkler systems, for example— undermine the case for using flame-retardant chemicals.
Similar to Dr. Blum, I don't really fully understand all the fire science behind flame retardants. Certainly, it would seem that both cigarette smoking and fire incidents are being statistically reduced over time, and that maybe flame retardant use could follow. It also doesn't help the situation when the chemical industry has resorted to less-than-honest tactics when promoting flame retardants.

However, I'm less than convinced by the evidence of toxicity (I would say that, wouldn't I?). But that hasn't stopped activists from making bold claims about neurotoxicity of flame retardants or making suggestions that sound like terrible tradeoffs (from Cheryl Hogue's article on EPA's approach to BFRs):
“Alternatives abound,” says Kathleen A. Curtis, national coordinator for the Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety. The group is a coalition of activists who support techniques to reduce or eliminate the need to add flame-retardant compounds to products. Alternatives include increased use of sprinklers and smoke detectors, fire-safe cigarettes, and hiring more firefighters, she says. Improvements in product design are also an option, such as use of inherently fire-resistant materials—nonwoven polyester fibers, for example—or barriers between highly flammable materials such as foams and the outer fabric coverings of furniture, Curtis tells C&EN.
Urrrr? That sounds quite expensive, and unlikely to happen (what's the likelihood over the next 20 years that we (as a country) are going to be hiring more, as opposed to less firefighters?)

Readers, been igniting your couches recently? What are your thoughts on flame retardants?

4 comments:

  1. "...brominated flame-retardant chemicals used in upholstered furniture may, in some cases, be endocrine disrupters or have neurological and other health effects..."

    Duh! As if there is a need for scientific proof for the notion that spending all your time sitting on a couch naked and watching TV is wrong.
    On a more serious note I oppose your classifying Ms. Blum as as a scientist. In my opinion, activism is not compatible with science at all, as the latter is far too nuanced and complicated to be forced into a typical activist story.

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    1. Yeah, there's a whole discussion to be had about who is "a chemist." To the layperson: Ph.D. in chemistry = chemist. To you and I, she's an activist.

      (Am I a chemist or an activist? Both, really.)

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    2. Thanks for the post, CJ!

      You do a great job introducing the issue.

      I think Arlene Blum is a chemist and an activist as well. I find this refreshing; the 'engaged' chemist who combines an interest in the scientific details of their chemistry with an interest in their chemistry's impact outside of the lab is a relatively rare breed. And I should think a good one. Furthermore, using hard science to support activism seems to be a good strategy toward positive change (as your post notes, the hard science is at issue in this case).

      Unfortunately, my PhD in synthetic chemistry lacked any training in toxicology. However, in light of the similarities of the structures of polybrominated biphenyl ethers and chlorinated dioxins, I would be hesitant to put either in couches.

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  2. I work in aviation textiles - to put it simply, we make things that look good and don't burn. There are a few different issues that make the whole topic a mess:

    1) different regulatory bodies have different rules. Some of them apply to a huge number of areas or companies, like REACH or RoHS. Others are mandates from single (but very important) customers. This creates chaos as we are constantly getting letters asking if our products contain chemical X, Y, or Z.

    2) this issue is definitely not separate from the first - you have to replace those bad chemicals that are in your products. This is research intensive, consumes a lot of time, and in some cases, requires expensive, extensive outside testing or qualification of products.

    3) misinformation, scare tactics, and buzzwords. A customer once asked if all of our PVC products were halogen-free. It is easy to scare people into banning chemicals. Like the article hinted, tons of studies have been done on tons of fire retardants, and the results are all over the place.

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