Toxic Dilemmas

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Science  23 Nov 2007:
Vol. 318, Issue 5854, pp. 1217
DOI: 10.1126/science.1151604

After all these years of environmental regulation, the laws and rules regarding the introduction of toxic chemicals into consumer products and the environment are still ineffectual. After an earlier lifetime in which I worried about lead, polybrominated biphenyls in plastics, and the like, I got reacquainted with toxic dilemmas. It happened because of a reunion with an old friend who has a long familiarity with the use of toxic substances as fire retardants in consumer products. Here's the story.

In the early 1970s when I first got to know Arlene Blum, she was working with Bruce Ames at the University of California, Berkeley. They were applying the Ames test for mutagenicity to various lipid-soluble chlorinated and brominated compounds that are double trouble because they concentrate in food chains and wind up in people, and aren't biodegradable. They discovered widespread use of a compound called tris(2,3-ibromopropyl) phosphate as a fire retardant in children's sleepwear. A mutagen and putative human carcinogen, it leeched into children's bodies. After a 1977 paper by Blum and Ames in Science, that use was banned. Well, the alert chemical industry quickly substituted a dichlorinated tris, which Ames and Blum also found to be mutagenic and was subsequently removed from sleepwear.


The history of residential fire risk is an interesting one, because it involves the tobacco industry. Remember them? They designed cigarettes that when dropped or put down, would smolder long enough to start a fire. For years, cigarette-lit fires were the greatest cause of fire-related deaths in the United States. After three decades of opposition from tobacco lobbyists, 22 states and Canada finally passed laws requiring that cigarettes be made self-extinguishing. With fewer people smoking and better enforcement of building codes, fire-related deaths are decreasing.

I had missed this important development, having lost track of the topic. Arlene, a high-profile international mountaineer, was off leading expeditions in the Himalayas and elsewhere and writing a memoir about it. Meanwhile, I had left the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and was back at Stanford. I hadn't seen Arlene for 25 years or so, but a few months ago, she turned up with an extraordinary sequel to the tris story, which she tells of in a recent Letter in Science. Fire retardants are now widely used in furniture foam, and the second most-used compound is none other than chlorinated tris! In less than three decades, this highly toxic mutagen has moved from your child's nightgown to your sofa.

Arlene is scientific adviser for a bill in the California legislature called AB 706, which would ban the use of the most toxic fire retardants from furniture and bedding unless the manufacturers can show safety. It has a good chance of passage next year; even the firefighters support it. Not surprisingly, chemical manufacturers have launched a fear campaign in opposition, claiming that their products have dramatically reduced fire deaths in California, although the rate of decrease is about the same as that in states that do not regulate furniture flammability.

But the problem is a national one. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Reform Act (S 2045) toyed with a provision that would rush us into a national furniture flammability standard. That's premature, because it leaves no time to develop a safe way to reduce furniture flammability and puts potentially persistent toxic chemicals into U.S. homes. Congress should forget that approach. The real problem is that the U.S. regulatory system for toxic industrial chemicals is not effective and is a threat to public health.

In Europe, the chemical industry is required to establish safety before a product can continue to be marketed. The U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (TOSCA) originally grandfathered existing chemicals, but none have been reexamined since the 1980s. Congress should abandon its attempt to attach a flammability standard to the CPSC, and instead turn to the real task of reforming TOSCA by introducing a real proof-of-safety provision. That would stop the chemical industry from continuing to make consumer protection look like a game of whack-a-mole.

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