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Charles Margulis's picture

[Crossposted from the Huffington Post]

When is a flame retardant not a flame retardant?

When it is no more effective in retarding flames than, well, nothing.

Since fire safety experts and government studies say that chemical flame retardants as they are used in many products are not effective, maybe we should stop calling them flame retardants.

Recently nonprofits from seven states announced that nap mats used in daycares nationwide contain harmful flame retardant chemicals, including a flame retardant that has been linked to cancer and others linked to hormone disruption and other serious health problems.

Maybe we should stop saying "flame retardant chemicals" and start calling them what they are: hidden time bombs.

Since most daycares don't allow the kids to smoke at nap time, flame retardants are not only ineffective in nap mats, they're also completely unnecessary. One of the unnecessary flame retardants found in several of the nap mats we tested is chlorinated Tris, a chemical linked to the development of cancer that was removed from children's pajamas more than 30 years ago.

How did this happen? How could we allow chemical companies to put these useless and harmful chemicals in products our children and families use every day?

The Chicago Tribune recently exposed how decades ago, Big Tobacco and Big Chemical got together to promote the use of chemical flame retardants, in order to fend off legislative efforts calling for fire-safe cigarettes. Their advocacy (read: money) resulted in a 1970s-era California flammability standard (called TB 117) that to this day promotes the use of chemical flame retardants in furniture and other products sold nationwide.

Thankfully, last summer California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered state regulators to revise the standard to avoid supporting these harmful chemicals, and just this month the state released its proposed new rule (TB 117-2013). Due to the size of the California market, a new state standard here will impact furniture and other suppliers nationwide. So everyone in the country should write to the California Department of Consumer Affairs in support of the proposed standard.

But there's still another reason that flame retardants have remained in use long after their severe health impacts were discovered. It's the same reason that lead was used in gasoline and other products, and asbestos was used in hundreds of products, even decades after it was clear that people were getting seriously ill from these substances.

For too long, we have had the idea that products should be allowed on the market and considered safe until proven otherwise. The proof of safety, then, doesn't happen with lab experiments on guinea pigs. Instead, our children and families are the guinea pigs in the chemical industry's experiments.

What if we did things differently? What if chemical companies had to demonstrate that their products were safe before they were allowed to put them into our children's nap mats, and into hundreds of other products our children and families use every day?

That's a common sense change that could end needless illnesses and suffering. It's also a change that would spur innovation in business, creating incentives for truly sustainable products that reap sustainable profits -- not decades of lawsuits by victims who were sickened by hazardous products.

This "safety first" approach is why we support the Safe Chemicals Act, which would for the first time in more than 30 years revise the main law governing U.S. chemical policy. The chemical hazards that we found in children's nap mats show that it's long past time to make this change, for our children's health.

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