I once helped draw blood from a wild falcon, its lithe wings gently lashed, its head covered to calm it. Biologists have been taking such tests for more than thirty years, tracking toxins in the predatory birds as they make landfall after spending months in Central and South America, where chemicals such as DDT and PCB aren?t banned like they are in the United States, since the 1970s. A month earlier I?d heard Charles Henny, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist with a focus on toxicology, say that by 2004 there was almost no detectable DDT in these falcons, whose populations had crashed due to DDT but then recovered. But there was something new on his radar. ?There?s other stuff that?s replaced it,? he said. ?My concern right now is the flame retardants.?
This month the Chicago Tribune published a four-part investigative series, ?Playing with Fire,? that reveals the pervasive presence of flame-retardant chemicals, which are used in thermoplastics and a wide range of ordinary household goods such as mattresses and furniture. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)?journalists Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe, and Michael Hawthorne report?are ?linked to serious health problems, including cancer, developmental problems, neurological deficits and impaired fertility.? They are so ubiquitous because a complex cabal of tobacco and chemical industries, fire marshals, quasi-journalists, and PR hacks have used pseudoscience and distorted facts to push their agenda. And the flame retardants might not even help quell fires.
It?s worth reading the whole series, (which should also remind every reader why it?s worth paying for serious investigative journalism), but here are a few key bits:
? Adult blood levels of certain widely used flame retardants doubled every two to five years between 1970 and 2004.
? A typical American baby is born with higher concentrations of flame retardants than any other infants in the world.
? The Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, a nonprofit that calls itself ?a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments, and industry leaders,? is actually comprised of only three members: Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products, and Chemtura, the three largest manufacturers of flame retardants, which together control 40 percent of the world market for these chemicals.
? The National Association of State Fire Marshals, under pressure from a tobacco industry that was resisting a push for ?fire-safe? cigarettes, continued promoting flame-retardant products even after it knew that the chemicals were escaping from the products and ending up in dust and the bodies of babies and adults worldwide.
? Flame retardants are being found in sewage sludge around San Francisco Bay, polar bears in the Arctic, harbor seals off the coast of Maine, mollusks in North Carolina, porpoises in the South China Sea, and human breast milk.
? Flame retardants create much more toxic smoke for fire fighters.
? The chemical industry frequently cites a study that concluded that flame retardants prevent deadly fires, reduce pollutants, and save society millions of dollars, yet the report is so obscure it is available only in Swedish. The Tribune translated it and found the citation faulty at best, based on information from eight TV fires in western Stockholm more than fifteen years ago.
? In reviewing key scientific studies and analyses behind the chemical industry?s most common arguments, the Tribune identified ?flaws so basic they violate central tenets of science.?
The amounts of these materials in our daily lives is staggering. ?When we?re eating organic, we?re avoiding very small amounts of pesticides,? said Arlene Blum, a California chemist who has fought to limit flame retardants in household products. ?Then we sit on our couch that can contain a pound of chemicals that?s from the same family as banned pesticides like DDT.? Read that closely: a pound of chemicals in a couch.
The publication of this story happened to coincide with the release of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, by Florence Williams. She recently spoke with Terry Gross on NPR?s ?Fresh Air? about the foreign substances she found, including flame retardants, when she had her breast milk tested.
In case you?re ready to immolate yourself after hearing about yet another widespread toxin in your daily environment, the Tribune at least included a simple tip that can help minimize adult exposure for. You learned it in kindergarten: wash your hands.
Bringing down Big Tobacco and Big Chemical wouldn?t hurt either.
Photo by Angus Fraser, 2008, via Flickr creative commons