"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”
More than 80% of furniture sold in the United States contains flame retardants. Found in everything from couches to baby cribs, these chemicals are used to help improve fire safety. But in recent years, a growing number of critics say these chemicals are toxic and pose serious health risks to humans. Some leading scientists and health experts say new studies link flame retardants to neurological, developmental, and fertility problems. But manufacturers maintain their products meet fire prevention standards and save lives. Guest host Steve Roberts talks with guests about the use of flame retardants and human health.
- Dr. Marcelo Hirschler consultant for GBH International.
- Dr. Gilbert Ross executive director and medical director of the American Council on Science and Health.
- Dr. Linda Birnbaum director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.
- Dr. Arlene Blum executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSGood morning. I'm Steve Roberts filling in for Diane Rehm while Diane is on vacation. Flame retardants can be found everywhere in our sofas, car seats, electronics, but critics say these chemicals which help reduce the risk of fire are toxic and harmful to humans.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining me in the studio to talk about the health concerns raised by flame retardants, Dr. Arlene Blum, she's the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. From a studio in Durham, N.C., Dr. Linda Birnbaum, she's director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSAnd by phone from Mill Valley, Calif., Dr. Marcelo Hirschler, a consultant for GBH International, which is a legal organization that deals with issues raised by fire. Welcome to you all, thanks for being with us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. STEVE ROBERTSAnd you can join us, you, our listeners, can join our conversation 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com Let's start with a basic question, Dr. Blum. What are fire retardants? How do they work?
DR. ARLENE BLUMThey're chemicals that are added to consumer products usually to slow fire ignition.
ROBERTSAnd they were. They were there for a purpose, right? And do they work? Is there a value to them?
BLUMWell, flame retardants do what they say they will do, slow ignition, but depending on the flammability standard, how they're used, there can either be a net benefit or not a net benefit in terms of fire safety.
ROBERTSAnd Dr. Birnbaum, who is on the phone with us, what are the main chemicals that are used in creating these fire retardants?
DR. LINDA BIRNBAUMWell, it totally depends upon the kind of material you're talking about. So in the past, there were many things called PBDEs, which are brominated flame retardants, which were heavily used, for example, in polyurethane foam.
DR. LINDA BIRNBAUMSome of the different types of PBDEs are used in electronic equipment, but there are many, many. In fact, there are probably hundreds of different kinds of flame retardants. There are at least 75 different brominated flame retardants, which either are in use or have been in use today. So again, it depends upon the kind of product and the desired effect would determine what gets used.
ROBERTSAnd let me go back to this as part of the background here. There were reasons for this. There were people who. There were deaths and there were injuries caused by flammable materials. The introduction of these chemicals had originally a positive purpose, didn't they?
BIRNBAUMWell, for example, the first flame retardants were used in children's sleepwear in the '70s. And I did work back in those days and learned that the tris that was used in kids' pajamas.
ROBERTSTris is the chemical?
BIRNBAUMTris is the name of the chemical that was used in kids' pajamas in the '70s. You might remember it? Many people do and nobody really thought about other effects when they started using it except slowing fire. And it turned out that the tris was a mutagen.
BIRNBAUMThat meant it changed DNA. It also was shown to cause cancer and it was also found to get inside the child so in America, things that we eat, foods, drugs and pesticides are regulated for health effects, but other chemicals like flame retardants really aren't.
BIRNBAUMSo back in the '70s we learned, indeed we found a child who had never worn tris pajamas, put her in the pajamas. The next morning, there were tris breakdown products in her urine. So the flame retardant was getting into the child.
BIRNBAUMIn those days, we wrote a paper for Science magazine pointing out that tris changed DNA, that it got into children and they stopped using it way back in the '70s.
ROBERTSBut let me just finish on this point, Linda Birnbaum. The American Chemical Council will argue that these retardants have prevented hundreds of deaths and injuries and that they have a social benefit. Is that fair or not fair?
BIRNBAUMI don't think there's evidence to support that claim. In fact, there's very little evidence that the use of these chemicals has led to a significant decrease in either deaths or harm due to fire. That is the claim that is made. I think we're always going to.
BIRNBAUMNo one wants to go away from fire safety, however it's very important that we look at the potential harm that may come from this very wide variety of different chemicals, some which may be worse than others. But we've studied over 80 different flame retardants over the last 30-plus years through the National Toxicology Program, as well as through other parts of the National Institutes of Health. And in fact, we've found that a significant number of them that have been used are no longer used because they've been found to be associated with adverse effects.
BIRNBAUMAnd usually the adverse effects are shown in experimental animal models or other animal models. But sometimes we even have evidence for adverse effects in people.
ROBERTSNow just to fill in our listeners on the history here, a lot of the benchmark work and the benchmark standards were set in California back in the '70s. I happened to live in California during that period.
ROBERTSAnd what's known in the trade as technical bulletin 117 that set the standard, describe how that happened and how a lot of the motives for these standards came actually from the cigarette industry.
BIRNBAUMWell, I don't think they did that far back. I think in those days, people indeed were looking at fire safety, but they weren't thinking more broadly because you can achieve fire safety many other ways without risking human health. So back to the pajamas, after we learned the chemical was cancer-causing, we found inherently flame retardant fabrics that didn't need chemicals.
BIRNBAUMWe found tight-fitting cotton that didn't need chemicals. So you can have equal or greater fire safety without added chemicals.
ROBERTSI understand that, but I wanted our listeners to understand how this happened and that California has sort of set, as it has in many ways, set the benchmark in this and that many companies then made products based on the California standards, which were the toughest around in terms of fire safety.
BIRNBAUMWell, in terms of the cigarette industry involvement, there was a big push for fire-safe cigarettes, cigarettes that would self-extinguish when you drop them instead of smoldering and starting fires. And the cigarette industry didn't really want that, they didn't want to be messed with or change.
BIRNBAUMSo they said the problem isn't that cigarettes start fires, the problem is that the products in our homes aren't flame retardant enough. So a cigarette industry executive named Peter Sparber started a huge push to put flame retardants in as many products as possible in our homes. So that was not in the beginning, but that was more recently that the cigarette industry has supported flame retardants as opposed to dealing with cigarettes.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane and our subject this hour is the whole debate over the utility and the dangers posed by flame retardants in a lot of products. You can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ROBERTSWe have some lines open so if you have something to say, an experience with one of these products give us a call and join our conversation. And Dr. Blum, you mentioned that you did pioneering work on the issue of children's pajamas, but talk about how you started or initiated your interest in this whole question of the presence of flame retardants in furniture and it had to do with a cat of yours.
BLUMMidnight, yes. Midnight was my very fat cat who became a very skinny cat and the vet diagnosed hyperthyroid disease, which he said didn't exist when he went to vet school and he was told he'd never see it in his career. But there was this mysterious epidemic of hyperthyroid disease since the '80s had been growing such that in his practice in California, new cases were diagnosed every week.
BLUMAnd I had just started studying the flame retardants. I had just learned that the same tris that our research had contributed to having be removed from kids' pajamas in the '70s, that same tris, was back in our furniture. In fact, the number one chemical with levels of 5 percent of the weight of the furniture being tris and so I said, well, I wonder if some of these flame retardants could be part of the reason for the hyperthyroid disease epidemic.
BLUMAnd another flame retardant that was used in most of our furniture until it was banned around 2005 looked a lot like thyroxine. So I said to my vet, could it be this PBDE flame retardant? And he was a good vet and he looked on vet link and found an epidemiology study in Illinois where they're looking at cats to see if they had more flame retardants in their bodies that was associated with hyperthyroid disease.
BLUMAnd so we sent a sample of my house dust, my cat's blood and the result came back that my house dust was the highest they'd ever measured for this highly toxic flame retardant.
ROBERTSAnd the analogy here, of course, is that children in particular, crawling on the floor, they are much more likely to be in contact with dust that is generated. Talk about why furniture poses a particular danger for children.
BLUMWell, the chemicals are continuously coming out of the furniture. They're sort of moving from an area of high concentration to low concentration, in dust, in the air and then they're heavy and they drop into dust.
BLUMSo just to go back to cats, cats that lick their fur, their level is a hundred times higher than humans, ten to hundred times higher. Children who crawl in the dust put their hands in their mouths. Their level of flame retardants is about three times higher than adults.
BLUMAnd there are actually studies finding a correlation between the level of flame retardant chemicals on a child's hand with the levels in their bodies. So it goes from dust to hand to body.
ROBERTSAnd Linda Birnbaum, fill us in on the studies that say what. There are a number of studies that have been done about. What then can be the impact particularly on small children of ingesting and breathing in this kind of material?
BIRNBAUMWell, there is growing evidence that people -- let me back up and say no one ever looked to see if these flame retardants were actually associated with adverse effects in people until the first study came out in 2007, which showed an association between the levels in a mom when she was pregnant and the effects on male reproductive development in the offspring.
ROBERTSWe're going to have more on this subject, more of your comments, more of your phone calls so stay with me. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in for Diane. Dr. Arlene Blum is with me. Dr. Linda Birnbaum on the phone and we'll have other guests as well so stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane and our subject this hour, flame retardants that can be found in many familiar furniture products, sofas, car seats, even electronics. They are, have been put in these products as flame retardants but these chemicals increasingly there is scientific evidence that they can have some very damaging side effects and that's our subject this morning.
ROBERTSArlene Blum is with me, she's the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. As well as Dr. Linda Birnbaum, who's director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Toxicology Program. Let me turn now to Dr. Marcelo Hirschler. He's a consultant for GBH International which an organization that deals with questions of fire safety. Dr. Hirschler, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
DR. MARCELO HIRSCHLERHi, thanks for having me.
ROBERTSAnd I'd like your perspective. Our two scientists here, Dr. Blum, Dr. Birnbaum have been very critical of flame retardants and very critical of their effects and give me your take on the balance here between their value and the cost.
HIRSCHLERWell, first of all let's start with the importance of fire safety. Fire safety's critically important. We are the developed nation that kills most, more people in fires in the world and the most severe problem is associated with the fires in upholstered furniture and in mattresses. In any home the only item that can cause the home to complete destruction is the upholstered furniture item or the mattress. Those are the only items, everything else is much, much smaller.
HIRSCHLERAnd we've seen the problem in recent cases. For example, the 2003 fire in The Station, Rhode Island. The nightclub fire that killed 1,000 people, that was caused by having a known flame retardant, known fire retardant polyurethane foam on a wall and that's what happened. Another fire that is particularly important to point out is Charleston, a superstore fire that was a store housing furniture caused flashover and killed nine charter firefighters in 2007. Fire safety is a really dramatic problem and flame retardants and one of the solutions.
HIRSCHLERLet me give you an example of how…
ROBERTSWell, wait, let me -- just a minute. Let me ask you a question.
ROBERTSIf fire safety is such a problem, from your perspective, what the benefits from regulations that require flame retardants in furniture and in drapes and other flammable objects?
HIRSCHLERWell, let me give an example. In the United Kingdom, in 1988 regulation went into effect that required the upholstered furniture be flame retardant and the Department of Trade and Industry put out a report in 1999 looking at the effects -- sorry, the report was June 2000, looking at the savings from, as a result of the posted fires, the savings, over a nine year period were, ranged between 710 lives saved and 1,856 lives saved.
HIRSCHLERThe savings in cost was about $5,600, sorry 5,000,600 pounds per year, 5.5 million pounds per year. Saving in injuries was about 5,500 injuries per year. So we're talking of massive savings, a massive improvement and that was purely a result of requiring that the furniture be made fire safe and what was required there was that the foam in the furniture be made fire safe, doesn't mean that the foam has to use flame retardants. You could use foam that is more effectively fire safe intrinsically but there aren't that many of those. Most people like to sit on a comfortable chair as opposed to sitting on hard chairs. So there was massive effect there for example.
ROBERTSRight, let me bring in Dr. Gilbert Ross. He's the executive director of the American Council on Science and Health. Dr. Ross, you've written, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show," and you've written extensively on this subject and one of the phrases that pops up in your work is "fear of chemicals," and this argument that gets into a larger issue of whether the use of chemicals as flame retardants and in other products are respected and valued, or not? Give me your perspective on this.
DR. GILBERT ROSSFirstly, thanks for having me on the show. There seems to be a growing, rather than a growing toxic threat from chemicals, there seems to be a growing pervasive fear of chemicals. Insidious leaching of chemicals into our foods, into our air and the water are in the news all the time. Allegations of this toxic chemical and that toxic chemical are everywhere whenever you look at the TV or read the newspaper. And the term toxic this and endocrine disrupting that are thrown about with increasing frequency.
DR. GILBERT ROSSLet me get to the nugget of my point. Flame retardants save lives by slowing the spread of fire and increasing the time to flashpoint, this has been well documented in numerous studies done by objective observers. Examples of the instigation of chemophobia, the fear of chemicals, has been replete in the discussion you've had so far this morning. Dr. Blum, for instance, has already stated that there may not be any benefit to these substances, targeting and tarring 75 plus flame retardants with one brush.
DR. GILBERT ROSSDr. Blum points out about children's sleepwear, Tris, that it was a mutagen and that is a cancer causing agent and it got inside the child. Well, these chemicals cause cancer in rats. My organization, the American Council on Science and Health, has a publication of many years duration, which I believe Dr. Blum is probably familiar, entitled "The Holiday Dinner Menu." Which lists the different treats that we ingest every Thanksgiving and, as an example, of any holiday.
DR. GILBERT ROSSThe chemicals in our foods are, many of them, are the same rodent carcinogens that she blames on Tris, for instance, getting inside the child means that it's absorbed to some extent and can be detected in the body. The fact that a substance can be detected in the body, does that mean that it's harmful? In the 1970s perhaps we could detect parts per million in a body. We can now detect parts per trillion and less. So if you're saying we can find the substance that means it's toxic.
DR. GILBERT ROSSWell, that means basically we have to throw out everything, we're made of chemicals for instance. It's ridiculous to assert that something is toxic because you can find it. She asserted that flame retardants are not regulated. She said chemicals, pharmaceuticals are regulated and this is regulated, flame retardants are not regulated. Nothing could be further from the truth. The EPA has weighed in on the brominated flame retardants.
ROSSMany other objective regulatory authorities have evaluated these substances up the kazoo and no harm to human beings has ever been detected from them despite the subtle shift in the conversation from maybe these things are toxic to Dr. Blum suddenly saying these toxic chemical, these highly toxic flame retardants, our children are being exposed to them.
ROBERTSOkay. I want to get Dr. Blum a chance to reply, please.
ROSSSure. No one ever looked it yet.
ROBERTSOkay, okay. Thanks.
BIRNBAUMThat's not true. That's not true. Excuse me, this is Dr. Birnbaum. I'm afraid that someone is not -- doesn't know his facts. There have -- since 2007, there have been over 100 papers that have shown associations between the levels of certain kinds of flame retardants in people and adverse health defects. So to say there is no evidence is absolutely untrue.
BLUMAnd I'm a chemist and I actually love chemicals and most chemicals are great and they make our lives better. There are a small number of very harmful chemicals that we do not want to have in our children's bodies and the sad fact is that this class of flame retardants are those chemicals. There are over 3,700 animal studies in addition to the several hundred human studies that Dr. Birnbaum referred to showing harm from the chemicals.
BLUMThere's an overwhelming body of evidence and I have to go back to Dr. Hirschler's comment that the most people in the world are dying because of fires in the U.S. We also have the most severe flammability standards in the world. Only the UK and the U.S. in the whole world put flame retardant chemicals inside our furniture.
BLUMWe have an extremely severe mattress standard and if we say we have the most severe standards, and he said furniture and mattresses are the two greatest causes of fire death, we have the most severe standards and yet he's saying we have the most fire deaths. So I am questioning the logic of that statement.
ROBERTSLet me ask all of you.
ROSSMay I reply to that?
ROBERTSJust a minute. I want to ask all of you this. If one side says preventing fire is a social benefit and the other side says preventing disease and other severe impacts from chemicals are also good. You're both saying the other one is misinformed and lying but is there a middle ground here? Is there a way of reconciling the benefit of deterring fire in ways that don't actually have the kind of negative impacts that our two scientists say the studies have?
BIRNBAUMSo no one denies the need for fire safety. I don't think that anyone would deny that. I think that what some of us might suggest is there may be ways to achieve fire safety without causing not only human harm but harm to the entire ecosystem as well.
ROBERTSDr. Ross, your reaction. Dr. Hirschler? One of you?
ROSSNobody is saying that anybody is lying here. There's obviously a difference of philosophy involved and which studies to pay more attention to. Doctors Blum and Birnbaum refer to overwhelming evidence in hundreds of studies showing harm. I submit that the overwhelming number of studies showing harm are in rodent studies. If these substances were so toxic to human with overwhelming evidence I wonder why the EPA, the California Statutes, the WHO and every other objective scientific body that has evaluated brominated flame retardants have found them to be not a health threat and...
BIRNBAUMDr. Ross, you're out of date I'm afraid to say.
ROBERTSJust a minute. We'll let everybody finish and we'll...
ROSSAnd I know that several of the brominated flame retardants were banned in the EU. DecaBDE, of course is still being used and of course is many other flame retardants that are both in active use and being researched now and to suddenly say flame retardant to this or flame retardant to that is ridiculous.
ROBERTSOkay. We're going to try to stay civil here and I'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Dr. Birnbaum, you say the evidence is not as he as described it?
BIRNBAUMYes, I think that he's out of date in his citations. First of all, Deca was banned in the EU in 2009, some of the other, the Penta and the Octa...
ROBERTSWhat is Deca?
BIRNBAUMDeca is one of the major used flame retardants or used to be one of the major used flame retardants in the world. used both in, for example, heavy plastics and heavy textile backings, very large volume compound. And that was banned in the EU, banned in Canada. It has been nominated as, for the Stockholm Convention, as a persistent organic chemical and in the U.S. the manufacturers have agreed to stop producing it in next year.
BIRNBAUMSome of the other, the Penta and the Octa, which were similar mixtures, which those were the ones that were used extensively in polyurethane foam, the Penta was especially, almost essentially in the United States and Canada. That was banned in the EU in 2004 and also withdrawn or production ceased by the sole U.S. manufacturer at the end of 2004. Now, so you could say well, why are you concerned about those chemicals if they're not being made anymore?
BIRNBAUMAnd the problem is those are persistent chemicals. They're going to be with us in the environment certainly for decades to come and they also last a very long time in our bodies. So I think that, I also think that while there are a great number of animal studies there's a tremendous increase in the number of epidemiology studies, studies in humans, which are now demonstrating a variety of adverse effects associated with the levels of these kinds of chemicals.
ROBERTSLet me -- okay. I'm going to try to be as fair as I can about the time here. Let the other side come back. Go ahead.
ROSSWould that be me?
HIRSCHLERMay I speak?
ROBERTSYes. Yes, please. I'm having trouble here. Dr. Hirschler, your turn.
HIRSCHLEROkay. This attack on flame retardants that we just keep hearing and hearing and hearing attacks on flame retardants is just completely off the charts. There have been four flame retardants that have been shown to have serious problems. Tris has been shown to be a problem back in the '70s and it was then withdrawn by the industry never used again. And this claim some people that it appeared again is just plain incorrect.
HIRSCHLERTris not used since, it appeared back in the '70s. The other two flame retardants have been shown to be a problem are Penta and Octa and then voluntarily the industry withdrew Deca. Deca has not been banned in the EU other than in electronics but Deca will not be manufactured anymore. But let's get to the real problem...
ROBERTSWait just a minute. If, let me ask you this. You've just listed a number of chemicals which have been proven to have negative side effects. Doesn't that indicate that there is a role for critics and a role for monitoring that says wait, some of these things that we thought were benign have turned out not to be.
HIRSCHLERThere's no question that there's role and that any flame retardant, any chemical, any material that is shown to be a problem should not be used, of course. No one is discussing that. That point is that we absolutely need to increase fire safety. Let me give you another example. the same study that has been misquoted over and over and over again where five different products were tested back in 1988, TV cabinets, machine housings, chairs, wire insulation and circuit boards done at MBS (unintelligible) The study a dramatic improvement in fire safety as a result of having the fire retardant materials.
ROBERTSOkay. Linda Blum, quickly.
BLUMWe can have increased fire safety without flame retardants. Flame retardants, I agree, are not the problem, it's the flammability standards, how they're used and I'd really like to discuss what's happening in California which impacts all of us.
ROBERTSOkay. We're going to get to our comments and our questions. We got a lot of people wanting to join this conversation. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. Stay with us and we'll get back to this conversation on flame retardants in just a moment.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. The subject this hour is obviously a controversial one. And it's over the whole question of flame retardants, their utility in terms of fire safety. And also their potential danger in terms of side effects to children and others. And I have four experts with me who are talking about this subject.
ROBERTSAnd we're going to get to the -- let me mention that it's Arlene Blum from the Green Science Policy Institute, Linda Birnbaum -- they're all doctors so stipulated -- director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Gilbert Ross is on the phone with us from the American Council on Science and Health. And Dr. Marcelo Hirschler, he's a consultant for GBH International.
ROBERTSI have a lot of emails here. And I'm going to read them. And I hope we can get through a number of them. Here's from Marcie in Utah. "My husband is a power lineman who is required to wear fire retardant clothing. He also has hyperthyroidism. How do we protect him?" Linda Birnbaum?
BIRNBAUMI think there is growing evidence that some of the flame retardants may have an association with alteration in how our thyroid glands function. So the question would be -- I mean he's obviously working in an occupation where he is at risk potentially of fires. And the question would be are there safer materials that might be able to be used in his equipment that would provide the fire safety while not threatening his health.
ROBERTSOkay. Yvonne from Hollywood, Fla. writes to us, "I have a couch bought in 2003. I'm sure a lot of listeners have a similar experience. How do I know if it contains any of these dangerous chemicals?"
BLUMWell, the sad news is it's really hard to find out. A hint is if it says it meets California Technical Bulletin 117, which is a California flammability standard followed throughout much of the country. If it has that label it is likely to meet that standard. And the good news is that standard is going to be changed very likely to a standard where there will be increased fire safety without the use of flame retardants.
ROSSMay I speak at some point? (unintelligible)
ROBERTSJust a -- gentlemen, I'll get right to you, okay? The next email is from Kim in Columbia, Mo., who says, "What do firemen use for flame protection? Is it a chemical or just really heavy clothing?" Dr. Hirschler, Dr. Ross, one of you want to answer that?
ROSSI'd like to first answer the previous question by telling that young woman that these chemicals are not dangerous. To say that 75 or 80 different chemicals because they're flame retardant are toxic or dangerous is nonsense. I mentioned this earlier. What makes all flame retardants toxic and dangerous especially since the WHO, the Consumer Products Safety Commission, the EPA, the World Health Organization and California department itself have all ruled on these substances over and over again.
ROSSThe fact that several of them were banned in the EU does not mean that they were dangerous necessarily. That's the precautionary principle. When a level of consumer rises sufficiently high things get banned for political reasons rather than scientific reasons. So tell the people that are worried about these chemicals toxicity to chillax. There's nothing to worry about.
ROBERTSOkay. Let me read this...
ROBERTSJust a minute -- just a minute. Yes, yes, I'll -- you'll have your turn in just a minute. I'm reading this email now from Ryan in Baltimore who writes, "I'm an upholsterer at a small shop in Baltimore. What can I do to minimize my risk if there really is one as it seems your experts disagree when I can't really minimize my exposure? Wouldn't upholsterers be a population worth studying to determine the risks to people also? Are there products I can offer my clients that are flame retardant free? Dr. Hirschler.
HIRSCHLEROkay, yes, there is a multitude of flame retardants that have been used for years and have been used on other things. Let me give you an example. One of the highest volume flame retardants in the world is alumina, which is something we've been using in toothpaste for many, many years and no one is pretending that toothpaste is dangerous. So flame retardants, in principle, aren't the issue. The issue is whether we get appropriate fire safety.
HIRSCHLERAnd there are other ways of resolving -- addressing fire safety. And fire safety needs to be open-flame fire safety. And that's what -- what I wanted to address before when Ms. Blum was talking about California TB117. The proposed change to California TB117 is to eliminate any open flame part of that, so open flame is the real problem. If a material starts getting ignited by a cigarette and get smoldering eventually you end up with open flames. And that's when you have a big -- big fire.
ROBERTSOkay, let me...
HIRSCHLERThe California TB117 regulation does a little bit on ignition, has improved things. It's not a particularly effective standard, but it does address open flame. The future California TB117 standard will just simply eliminate the protection against open flames at all. So...
ROBERTSOkay, thank you. Thank you. I want to get to some of our callers. By the way, we have an email who says, "Your speaker said that a thousand people were killed in the station fire in Rhode Island. Actually it was a hundred. Please have him correct. Let me go to...
HIRSCHLERI said a hundred.
ROBERTSOkay, let me go to Marissa in San Antonia, Texas. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Marissa.
MARISSAYes, well, okay. My understanding is that by federal law mattresses have to have flame retardants in them. And, you know, in my house we all have conventional mattresses except for my son. I ordered him the natural latex with wool, which is apparently kind of naturally flame resistant. In order to -- if you have an allergy to wool then you have to get a doctor's note.
MARISSABut, of course, I had to spend three times as much on that mattress. So, I guess, my point is I would like there to be more choice available. You know, I get to choose what kind of foods I eat. And, you know, if I want chemicals in them or not. But I can't choose as easily not to have chemicals in my mattress. And it was pretty upsetting to me to learn, you know, after having made such careful choices when I was pregnant and breastfeeding that...
MARISSA...These chemicals can leach to your breast milk.
ROBERTSThanks very much, Marissa.
HIRSCHLERJust to clarify...
ROBERTSJust a -- just a...
HIRSCHLERThe regulation for mattresses does not require the use of flame retardants -- it doesn't require to pass a fire test. In fact, it's very rare that the use flame retardants in mattresses.
ROBERTSOkay, Arlene Blum.
BLUMSo I agree with Dr. Hirschler. The good news is mattresses -- foam does not contain flame retardants. And that's an example of how you can achieve high levels of fire safety without flame retardants. So, I think, flame retardants, themselves, aren't so much the issue as how you achieve fire safety. So adult mattresses do not contain flame retardants. So you don't have to worry. You can buy almost any mattress and not have flame retardants.
BLUMJuvenile mattresses, unfortunately, follow a different standard, this TB117 standard. And the TB117 standard, unfortunately -- a couch or a juvenile mattress that was manufactured prior to 2005 the chemical used in those products to meet TB117 was a chemical that has been globally banned in 180 countries. So old products would have PentaBDE, but that's only couches and juvenile mattresses. Adult mattresses are fine.
ROBERTSOkay, okay. Let me turn to Randy in Peterborough, N.H. Randy, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome.
RANDYThank you. I actually did my master's looking at developmental effects of PBDE's of the brominated flame retardants. And somebody who's defending the use of them probably has something to sell because somebody else used another brominated -- another halogenated compound in -- after World War II called PCB.
RANDYAnd the problem that PCB's have is they're environmentally persistent. They stay around in the environment for decades, if not centuries. And they bio magnify. They go up the food chain and as you go -- as the smaller organisms eat it out of the sediment larger organisms eat five of those smaller organisms.
RANDYAnd it goes up and then up and then up in the food chain until you get to the highest parts of the food chain where you see huge concentrations of this stuff in the environment. And that is why it was banned by the EU. Not because of the -- of the toxicological effects of humans, but because of the fact that it's a brominated compound. It's a compound that's going to persist in the environment for decades.
ROBERTSOkay, thank you, Randy. Linda Birnbaum.
BIRNBAUMWell, I think -- I think that it's -- it was banned in the EU. And it's been -- and is now part of the Stockholm Convention among persistent organic chemicals. And the reason there is because it is highly persistent. It is highly bio accumulative, which means it accumulates, as you said, and bio magnifies up the food chain. And then the other thing is is that there is lots of evidence for effects on birds and fish and wildlife, including mammals, as well as at the time this decision was made to ban it there was lots of animal data.
BIRNBAUMAt this point, though, there is growing evidence for that specific kind of chemical, the PBDE, having effects -- adverse effects in people, as well -- a number of effects including effects on the developing reproductive system, the developing nervous system and also effects on the thyroid hormone system and certain other endocrine systems, as well.
ROBERTSOkay, thank you. We're going to turn now to Claudia in Arlington, Va. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Claudia.
CLAUDIAHi, thanks for taking my call. I am not going to chillax about these chemicals. I'm very frightened after read the story in the New York Times which featured Arlene Blum a couple weeks ago. It seems to me with the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 not having been revised, revamped since then it's basically you throw one chemical and another one comes through the door. And you have to prove it all over again that there's something, you know, horribly wrong with this.
CLAUDIAAnd I just wanted to talk about what happened last night -- our back to school night at my children's elementary school. The teacher -- the principal of the school proudly displayed the new drapes in our auditorium where the kids eat, where they do band and chorus. And said these drapes -- and they're beautiful new drapes and they're treated with fire retardant. And I just went oh, my God, what are we exposing our kids to. And that's my question. Thank you.
ROBERTSClaudia, thank you.
ROSSCould I respond, perhaps?
ROBERTSJust -- just a minute. Thank you very much, Claudia. I'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now the floor is yours, doctor.
ROSSThanks. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 whether it needs to be modernized or revised or not it certainly is a subject of fervent discussion now. However, the brominated flame retardants were thoroughly evaluated under the Toxic Substances Control Act by the EPA several times over the course of the past 20 odd years. And have been, as I said, numerous times previously. Found did not pose a health threat, which echoes the scientific conclusions of every other authoritative scientific body that has studied them.
ROBERTSOkay, let me turn...
HIRSCHLERIt is very -- it is very interesting to consider that the lady who just called is very concerned about what would happen if her children are close to the drapes because they are now fire safe. I wonder what would happen if we suddenly had a fire and the drapes went up in fire because they -- they are not flame retarded. They don't -- they're not fire safe. And we had a dramatic fire in the -- in the school. This is the kind of thing that fire safety is there to prevent.
HIRSCHLERAnd are flame retardants the only way to achieve it, no, absolutely not. They're not the only way to achieve it, but they're one very effective way and one very safe way of getting fire safety. Before we started using these chemicals and started applying principles of fire safety we were killing people in fires at a much higher rate than we are now.
ROBERTSOkay, I've been -- I've been trying all morning to get people to focus on the fact that we have two virtues here. We have the virtue of trying to prevent fire and we have the virtue of trying to prevent disease as a result of these chemicals. I want each of you in the time that's left, is there a common ground here? Is there a middle ground where these interests can overlap? And I'm going to start with you, Arlene Blum.
BLUMWell, I think fire safety is critical and we can have it all. For example, the drapes, we have fire -- inherently fire retardant materials in our drapes. Studies of drapes show that drapes, whenever studied, are treated with a flame retardant that, unfortunately, is about to become -- it's under consideration globally for banning because it is persistent bio accumulative and toxic. But we can have fire safe drapes without adding chemicals that are harmful.
BLUMAnd, indeed, the chemicals are highly profitable. And in California, where I live, we have for five years had efforts to increase fire safety without the chemicals. And a documented $23 million was spent by the chemical industry preventing California from various efforts to increase fire safety without toxic chemicals. So I think we can have it all, greater fire safety and not put the most persistent toxic chemicals in products with high levels of consumer exposure.
ROBERTSDr. Gilbert Ross, your view of this question I posed.
ROSSWell, I don't know how to respond to your question. I admire you for trying to find common ground. These substances prevent deaths and injuries from fire. There is not reliable evidence, as attested to by numerous scientific bodies, that these chemicals, which, as a group, comprise a whole litany of different types of chemicals, are causing human disease.
ROSSI see no reason why the current regulatory apparatus, which is very stringent, is failing to protect us from the harm -- alleged harm of these substances, as opposed to the documented benefits. So, having said that, I'm having trouble finding common ground. I think that Drs. Blum and Birnbaum are being alarmist and I'm not saying that they have an agenda or an ax to grind. The allegation was insinuated earlier about something to sell. We certainly have nothing to sell except sound science.
BIRNBAUMI think that the claims of fire safety that are being provided by some of the flame retardants that have been used are over stated. According to the National Safety Council there are approximately the same number of deaths every year in the U.S. from contact with hot water as deaths from unintentional home upholstered furniture fires.
BIRNBAUMAlso, when some of these brominated flame retardants actually do go up in fire, in other words, once they actually start to burn. Remember they're just slowing down the growth only, actually, by a few seconds in the product. They generate a lot more soot and smoke and carbon monoxide. And those are the things that actually kill people. It's not so much the flames per say.
ROBERTSIt's going to have to be...
BIRNBAUMI think that...
ROBERTSIt's going to have to -- I'm sorry. It's going to have be the last word. Thank you to Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. Her latest book is "Breaking Trail, A Climbing Life." Also with me Dr. Linda Birnbaum from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Dr. Gilbert Ross from the American Council on Science and Health and Dr. Marcelo Hirschler from GBH International. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Thanks for spending an hour of your morning with us.
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