Flame Retardant Chemicals

The Question
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How will the Canadian government prevent toxic flame retardant chemicals from circulating widely in consumer products and accumulating in our bodies?

The Background

Industrial flame retardant chemicals, like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are added to everyday consumer products such as electronics, upholstered furniture, vehicles, and clothing in the name of fire safety. Scientific research has increasingly shown, however, that chemical flame retardants do more harm than good. Many argue that these chemicals do not provide adequate protection from fire, and ongoing research has shown that they are toxic to humans and persist in our environments. While fire safety is a serious concern, there are chemical-free approaches to fire prevention.

Once flame retardants are added to consumer products and building materials, they are literally built into our everyday infrastructures and environments. In this way, our homes and workplaces become sources of long-lasting chronic exposure to toxic chemicals. Such built-in exposures become impossible to remove or avoid. These exposures add up. Toxicological studies have shown that PBDEs and other flame retardant chemicals accumulate in our bodies, showing up in blood, breast milk and semen. The most recent national study we have concluded that 92% of all Canadian women tested had PBDEs in their breast milk.

Exposures to toxic flame retardants are an environmental and reproductive justice issue. Many flame retardant chemicals are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that interfere with normal hormone activities in growing bodies. EDCs can alter the course of development, affecting fetal development, infancy, and children going through puberty. Even at low doses, EDCs can have lasting effects, especially at these pivotal windows of hormonal activity. While these toxic chemicals are ubiquitous, they are unevenly distributed in our environments. This means that people living near industrial sites, those that rely on traditional hunting and fishing practices, or those with low-incomes are at a greater risk of exposure. Children, fetuses, and those with weakened immune systems are also disproportionately at risk. EDCs can be particularly potent at low doses, making the low-dose, chronic exposures to flame retardant chemicals, a serious and ongoing concern.

Current failures to regulate flame retardant chemicals in consumer goods and other manufactured items put Canadians at serious risk of chronic exposures to toxic EDCs. Despite the introduction of a new regulation to limit the toxic flame retardant PBDE, flaws in Canadian regulation continue to allow these banned chemicals to circulate widely in consumer goods, exposing all Canadians living today and future generations to unnecessary and persistent harms.

One of the major problems regulators face is that even if one class of flame retardant chemical, like PBDEs, is banned, the chemical industry will replace it with an alternative chemical. Some of these alternative flame retardants have similar chemical structures, and likely similar toxicity. Currently the Government assesses chemicals for toxicity one by one, but this testing takes place only after new chemicals have already entered the market. This slow assessment process allows alternative flame retardants to circulate before their safety has been determined.

Another major flaw in Canada’s regulatory process includes the long wait times between the determination of a chemical’s toxicity and its regulation. For example, persistent and harmful PBDEs were first determined to be toxic in 2004, but Canadians will have to wait until December 23rd, 2016 until the most commonly used PBDE, Decabromodiphenyl ether (decaPBDE), is prohibited from manufacture, sale and import.  This means that decaPBDE has been accumulating in our environments, despite being known to be toxic, for over a decade. At the same time, these regulations do not prohibit PBDEs that are already incorporated into manufactured items or their parts, and thus, in effect, do not effectively restrict the accumulation and circulation of this toxic chemical in our environments.

Toxic by Design, a new research report, examines the failure of current regulations that leave Canadians exposed to PBDEs and other flame retardant chemicals. The report makes two policy recommendations that would protect the health and wellbeing of Canadians:

1) Prohibit consumer products and the components of consumer products containing any flame retardant chemical for which there is evidence of harm, including alternative flame retardants, and those that have no environmental health assessment confirming their safety. Such action recognizes that the current substance by substance approach under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) and the slow timeline of assessment cannot adequately address the proliferation and distribution of replacement flame retardant chemicals.  It also recognizes that the product by product approach of the Consumer Product Safety Act (CCPSA) cannot adequately address the widespread use of flame retardants in many kinds of products and materials.

2) Develop a strategy on the use of alternative flame retardant chemicals that meaningfully implements the precautionary principle.  This requires, at minimum, that the government address the way that flammability standard-setting processes work at cross-purposes to the aims of CEPA. The government must integrate decision-making across these domains so as to address the problem of Built-in Exposures

We stand behind these recommendations and urge the government of Canada to keep Canadians and our future generations safe from toxic flame retardant chemicals by eliminating harmful exposures.

Your Letter to Ministers and Members of Parliament

Dear Ministers, 

The Government of Canada recently announced that new regulations for the toxic flame retardant chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) will come into effect December 23, 2016. This new regulation adds decaPBDE, a commonly used PBDE, to an existing ban on the manufacture, sale, use and import of PBDEs. But this new ban has no bearing on any PBDEs already embedded in manufactured items. In fact, a regulatory exception permits toxic PBDEs to continue to circulate in consumer goods such as upholstered furniture, electronics, and vehicles. In effect, this new regulation does little to make Canadians safer: it continues to put those living today and future generations at increased risk of exposure to toxic chemicals.

Moreover, the Government’s justification for the regulation of PBDEs, and another common flame retardant, Hexobromocyclododecane (HBCD), explicitly recognizes that industry will replace these banned chemicals with alternative flame retardant chemicals. Research conducted in the US and Canada has shown that these alternative flame retardant chemicals, which have not been thoroughly tested for toxicity, are becoming common sources of exposure in homes and workplaces.

State-of-the-science research on endocrine disrupting chemicals has demonstrated that low doses of some flame retardants can have significant health effects on bodies when exposures occur at pivotal windows of development, including fetal development, infancy, and puberty.  If 92% of Canadian women tested in our national biomonitoring program have PBDEs in their breastmilk, our regulatory system is clearly failing.

How will the Canadian government address these regulatory failures?

Toxic by Design, a recent report by a coalition of Canadian researchers (EDAction 2016), asks the government to address these regulatory failures and makes a series of policy recommendations that would better protect Canadians from new and intensified exposure to toxic chemicals. This report shows that while some of the most common flame retardant chemicals in use today have been declared “toxic” by the federal government and their manufacture has been prohibited in Canada, regulatory exceptions allow PBDEs already embedded in products and components of products to continue to circulate widely through the Canadian consumer markets. Thus, without a regulation that bans PBDEs from all products, including their components, whether they are imported or assembled in Canada, Canadians will continue to be exposed to these toxic and persistent chemicals on an ongoing basis.

Toxic by Design emphasizes how, despite recent regulatory measures, the problem of flame retardant chemicals may be compounded in the future.  New flammability standards, if passed through the Standards Council of Canada without robust public scrutiny, may promote the increased use of flame retardants.  Even with the complete prohibition of PBDEs, alternative chemicals, not yet subjected to rigorous study, will proliferate to replace regulated chemicals.

We are asking that the Government of Canada:

1) Prohibit consumer products and the components of consumer products containing any flame retardant chemical for which there is evidence of harm, including alternative flame retardants, and those that have no environmental health assessment confirming their safety. Such action recognizes that the current substance by substance approach under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) and the slow timeline of assessment cannot adequately address the proliferation and distribution of replacement flame retardant chemicals.  It also recognizes that the product by product approach of the Consumer Product Safety Act (CCPSA) cannot adequately address the widespread use of flame retardants in many kinds of products and materials.

2) Develop a strategy on the use of alternative flame retardant chemicals that meaningfully implements the precautionary principle.  This requires, at minimum, that the government address the way that flammability standard-setting processes work at cross-purposes to the aims of CEPA. The government must integrate decision-making across these domains so as to address the problem of Built-in Exposures

This letter has been drafted by concerned members of the public as part of the Write2Know Project (http://write2know.ca), a campaign that aims to mobilize public awareness and inquiry into federal research and policies on environmental and public health and safety. Our questions arise out of genuine concerns about the health and well-being of Canadians.

We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

[Your name here]

cc.

Hon. Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change
Hon. Jane Philpott, Minister of Health
Hon. Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development
Hon. Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science
Hon. Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development
Hon. Edward Fast, Conservative Critic of Environment and Climate Change
Hon. Nathan Cullen, NDP Critic of Environment and Climate Change
Hon. Colin Carrie, Conservative Critic of Health Canada
Hon. Don Davies, NDP Critic of Health Canada

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More Information

Bienkowski, B. (2016). “Flame retardant industry link: how many billion dollars is it worth?Environmental Health News.

Endocrine Disruptors Action Group. (2016). Toxic By Design: eliminating harmful flame retardant chemicals from our bodies, homes, & communities. Toronto.

Gross, L. (Nov. 16, 2011). Special Report: Flame retardant industry spent $23 million on lobbying, campaign donations. Environmental Health News.

Government of Canada. (2016). Regulations Amending the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations, 2012 (Canada Gazette, Vol. 150 No. 20).

Government of Canada. (Jan. 24, 2014). Overview of the Chemicals Management Plan.

Health Canada (Aug. 2010). Report on Human Biomonitoring of Environmental Chemicals in Canada: Results of the Canadian Health Measures Survey Cycle 1 (2007–2009).

Morrissey, M. (Feb. 23, 2015). UNH Research: Flame Retardants Found to Cause Metabolic, Liver Problems. UNH Today.

Scott, D. N. (2015). Our Chemical Selves: Gender, Toxics, and Environmental Health. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Siddique, S., et al. “Levels of Dechlorane plus and Polybrominated Diphenylethers in Human Milk in Two Canadian Cities.” Environment International 39, no. 1 (2012): 50–55.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (2015). Flame retardants used in flexible polyurethane foam: An alternatives assessment update (No. EPA 744-R-15-002).

Van Esterik, P. (2004). “Breastfeeding in a Contaminated Environment.” Canadian Women’s Health Network, 6/7(4/1).

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