From: The Chicago Tribune
By the early 2000s, the flame retardant known as penta had become a villain. Packed by the pound into couches and other furniture, the chemical was turning up in the blood of babies and in breast milk around the world. The European Union voted to ban penta after researchers linked it to developmental and neurological problems in children, and manufacturers pulled it from the market.
But the only U.S. company that made penta soon introduced a replacement, hailing it as the beginning of an eco-friendly era for flame retardants.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission is to safeguard America’s health and environment, praised the withdrawal of penta as a “responsible action” and promised that the new flame retardant had none of the problems of the old one. Unlike penta, Firemaster 550 would neither stick around in the environment nor build up in people and wildlife, a top EPA official declared in a 2003 news release.
Today, in sharp contrast to the promises of industry and government, chemicals in the flame retardant are being found everywhere from house dust in Boston to the air in Chicago. There also are signs the chemicals are building up in wildlife, prompting concern that Firemaster 550 or its byproducts could be accumulating in people.
At a time when consumers clamor for more information about their exposure to toxic substances, the chemical safety law allows manufacturers to sell products without proving they are safe and to treat the formulas as trade secrets. Once health effects are documented, the law makes it almost impossible for the EPA to ban chemicals. EPA officials acknowledge they know little, if anything, about the safety of not only Firemaster 550 but most of the other 84,000 industrial compounds in commercial use in the U.S.
Unlike Europe, where companies generally are required to prove the safety of their chemicals before use, U.S. law requires manufacturers to submit safety data only if they have it. Most don’t, records show, which forces the EPA to predict whether chemicals will pose health problems by using computer models that the agency admits can fail to identify adverse effects.
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