The Toxic Chemical Whack-a-Mole Game

When her black cat rapidly dropped from a healthy 14 pounds to a skeletal five pounds, it was natural for Arlene Blum to investigate whether a toxic chemical in her home might be to blame. The veterinarian’s diagnosis raised that possibility, and Blum had expertise in the harm that chemicals can cause. Her research as a chemist in the 1970s helped reveal the possible health hazards posed by flame retardants used in children’s sleepwear.

What surprised Blum, executive director of the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, Calif., was the chemical she discovered in Midnight’s blood, in the foam of her couch and in dust throughout her house. It was a substance only slightly different than the one that, decades earlier, she encountered in kids’ pajamas, leading to a federal ban on the compound for that sort of use.

Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, said “the overall use of harmful chemicals in products continues to increase.” (Photo by Lynne Peeples)

While Blum can’t know for certain if flame retardant particles from the couch made her cat sick, the experience inspired her to take a fresh look at the problem of potentially hazardous chemicals in consumer products. She is among a growing number of scientists, advocates, parents and public officials who urge a fundamental shift in how society restricts toxic chemicals — moving away from a one-at-a-time whack-a-mole game to instead targeting whole classes of chemicals. The aim is to end the longstanding pattern of manufacturers simply swapping one toxic substance for another once a chemical, after years of research and advocacy, is phased out or banned.

This cycle has played out in a host of American household items. A popular chemical used in cash register receipts and to harden plastics in sippy cups and water bottles — bisphenol A, also known as BPA — has been widely replaced with a chemical cousin, bisphenol S. Studies now suggest BPS may be at least as harmful as BPA. Likewise, new phthalates — members of a chemical family used to make plastics softer and more flexible in food storage containers and children’s toys — have replaced earlier versions, but haven’t eliminated concerns about potential hazards. And then there are the flame retardants. For years, furniture makers added polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, to products to fend off flames. When scientists deemed those toxic, the industry switched to substances such as Tris, the same chemical prohibited in children’s pajamas.

In a separate 3-to-2 vote in October, the CPSC banned five types of phthalates from childcare products and toys – including items such as rubber ducks — based on evidence that they can interfere with hormone production and alter the development of the male reproductive system.Blum’s institute and other advocacy groups, including the Consumer Federation of America and Earthjustice, are cautiously encouraged about a pair of moves by federal officials this fall possibly signaling that the class approach to regulation is catching on. Tris, PBDEs and related fire retardants belong to a class called organohalogens. In September, the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted 3-to-2 to take steps toward banning this chemical group in certain consumer products. Scientists testifying before the commission underscored links between organohalogens and brain damage, immune disorders, reproductive problems and cancer.

The American Chemistry Council, the industry’s leading trade group, criticized the commission’s decisions. “Rather than issuing blanket hazard statements about groups of chemicals – some of which can play an important and at times lifesaving role – we should evaluate these chemicals based on their individual toxicological profiles and real-world exposures,” said Bryan Goodman, a spokesman for the council.

But Robert Adler, a Democratic member of the CPSC, dismissed that idea during a meeting of the commission just before the vote on organohalogens. “There are simply too many of these chemicals in the market and entering the market to regulate them one-by-one,” he said. “We’re playing whack-a-mole with the public and our children’s health.”

Based on “the unanimous testimony” by government and academic scientists, Adler said, “I have concluded that we must not sit idly by and wait for data on the safety of OFRs [organohalogen flame retardants] that all evidence to date suggests will never come. As one of the witnesses at our hearing pointed out, if we took the tobacco industry’s word on cigarette safety, we would still be waiting.”

Bryan Goodman, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, criticized “blanket hazard statements about groups of chemicals – some of which can play an important and at times lifesaving role.”

Commissioner Marietta Robinson, another Democratic appointee who voted in favor of both rulings, warned that the path to new regulatory approaches still faces resistance. Under the Trump administration, the commission will soon shift from a Democratic majority to a Republican one that could halt the momentum toward banning problematic classes of chemicals. Robinson’s term, in fact, ran out in October. Any day she could be replaced by Trump nominee Dana Baiocco, currently a partner at the law firm Jones Day, where she helped defend tobacco giant RJ Reynolds and other clients confronted by lawsuits over toxic chemical exposures.

Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and general counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, noted that Congress could block the phthalate ban from going into effect, as scheduled, on April 25. Still, Weintraub said she is optimistic that the CPSC decisions will influence consumers, manufacturers and states to steer away from these chemicals, regardless of the final outcomes. “For the first time this class concept has been codified,” Weintraub said.

She also pointed to a guidance document issued by the CPSC as a result of the vote on organohalogens. In the document, the commission urges manufacturers to voluntarily stop adding the chemicals to upholstered furniture, baby and toddler products, mattresses and electronics enclosures. It also encourages retailers and consumers to ask before they buy a product whether it contains any of the chemical additives.

Difficult climbs

Beyond her science career, Blum has made history leading all-women’s expeditions up Denali in Alaska as well as Annapurna in Nepal, one of the world’s most dangerous and difficult climbs. “But the hardest thing I’ve ever done is take on the toxic chemical problem,” Blum told me as we descended from a sunset hike in the hills overlooking Berkeley.

“We make progress with healthier furniture and children’s products,” added Blum, “but the overall use of harmful chemicals in products continues to increase.”

It was Halloween night. As Blum and I drove to her home, Star Wars villains, superheroes and princesses roamed the streets. We were greeted in the driveway by meows from Molly, her new black cat. Inside, an orange flame retardant-free couch was flanked by stacks of science books and, somewhere, a stash of Halloween candy that Blum tried to find before the trick-or-treaters began knocking on her door.

David Michaels, an environmental and occupational health expert, said it appears that the chemical industry is “taking a page from the tobacco industry’s playbook” in trying to delay “public health protections.” (U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration photo)

A letter to the editor had appeared in multiple U.S. newspapers earlier that week warning that “children are guaranteed to run around open flames while clad in dinosaur tails and oversized skirts.” The author was Dr. Joseph Perrone, chief science officer for the Center for Accountability in Science, which has defended industry, including tobacco and chemical companies, and does not disclose its donors. “The use of flame retardants has received relentless criticism,” wrote Perrone. “It’s important to remember that manufacturers don’t introduce chemicals haphazardly. Compounds like flame retardants were carefully developed and tested because society needed them.”

Goodman, of the American Chemistry Council, echoed the endorsement of flame retardants, calling them an “important tool” to help products meet fire safety standards. “That is why it is so disheartening,” he added, “that the discussion has lacked almost any consideration of fire safety.”

Many scientists agree that flame retardants, in certain cases, can save lives by slowing the spread of flames. A growing body of evidence, however, highlights the potential health hazards also posed by the chemicals, as well as casts doubt on some of the chemicals’ true fire-deterring value — at least as they are commonly used.

“A lot of these fire retardants don’t work at the concentrations they are added to products,” explained Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The only thing these chemicals then do, she added, is “generate all kinds of really nasty compounds” when they burn.

Taking a page from tobacco

David Michaels, a professor of environmental and occupational health at The George Washington University, said, “It appears that the American Chemistry Council is again taking a page from the tobacco industry’s playbook and using the lack of complete data to manufacture uncertainty and delay public health protections.”

The tobacco industry played a role in the initial push to inject furniture with flame retardants — part of its response to society’s growing focus on cigarettes as a cause of fire deaths and increasing pressure on the industry to produce a fire-safe cigarette. Chemical companies then continued the push to preserve their market, as uncovered by a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation. The well-funded campaign included paid experts and lobbyists, including a now-defunct group called Citizens for Fire Safety that described itself as a “coalition” of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors and industry leaders. Critics said it was simply a front for makers of flame retardants.

Joseph Perrone, of the Center for Accountability in Science, wrote that “manufacturers don’t introduce chemicals haphazardly. Compounds like flame retardants were carefully developed and tested because society needed them.”

In 2014, the state of California removed the decades-old requirement that flame retardants be included in the stuffing of upholstered furniture. The state rule, adopted in 1975, had become the de facto standard for the rest of the nation. Still, California’s update did not forbid flame retardants outright.

With their September vote, the CPSC committed to convening a panel that will provide scientific expertise for a potential ban on certain uses of organohalogen flame retardants. The vote coincided with a report that found high levels of these flame retardants in a place consumers might not expect: new televisions. As with organohalogens in furniture foam, these chemicals can escape from electronics and accumulate in house dust that can then be inhaled and ingested, especially by young children.

“None of us can shop our way out of this problem,” said Maureen Swanson, co-director of Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Developmental Risks), another advocacy group that has begun targeting toxic chemicals by class. Swanson pointed out that phthalates aren’t always required to be listed on a product’s label, posing an added challenge to consumers.

What’s more, if a consumer typed “flame retardants” into Google, the top hit they would see — in a featured snippet block — is a quote from and link to a website by the American Chemistry Council. The site links to another site specifically devoted to contesting the CPSC’s decision on organohalogens, which itself is the top hit of a search for “flame retardants furniture.” The webpages are among multiple entries that defend the use of various classes of controversial chemicals and lead search engine results.

‘It’s incredibly frustrating’

Beth Messersmith, of Durham, N.C., recalled cheering aloud in her living room when she heard about the CPSC making moves on organohalogens and phthalates. “I hope those rulings stand,” said Messersmith, a mother of two and senior campaign director for MomsRising.org, a group focusing on family health and economic security. “At least those are things I could mark off my list of being concerned about. That is some comfort.”

In addition to feeling like she “needs to be a chemist” when doing basic shopping for her family, Messersmith is among residents of North Carolina concerned about an industrial chemical, GenX, that has contaminated local drinking water. “We don’t really know what it’s going to do to us in the short term or in the long term,” she said. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”

GenX belongs to a class of substances containing carbon-fluorine bonds, known as highly fluorinated chemicals. Because their bonds are some of the strongest found in nature, members of the class can be incredibly useful. They are probably best known as the stuff that protects carpets from stains, keeps food from sticking to pans, repels rain from coats and prevents mascara from running down cheeks. Increasingly, however, they are also the subject of warnings by public health advocacy groups.

Among the most notorious class members is a GenX predecessor, PFOA, formerly used to make non-stick Teflon cookware. After studies suggested exposure to PFOA likely raises risks of cancers, thyroid disease and other health issues, the chemical was phased out. Today, more than 3,000 similar highly fluorinated chemicals, including GenX, can be found in everything from clothing and cookware to firefighting foam. And these relatives remain far less studied than PFOA. The limited data that is available, according to Birnbaum of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, suggests that many of these replacement highly fluorinated chemicals might pose the same risks as PFOA.

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration removed approval of three food contact substances containing highly fluorinated chemicals. Although a limited step, it represented a potential shift from chemical-by-chemical toward class-based regulation, Phil Brown, an environmental health expert at Northeastern University in Boston, and coauthors concluded in a paper published a few months later.

Beth Messersmith of Durham, N.C., pictured here with her family, is concerned about an industrial chemical that has contaminated local drinking water.

“The science is growing rapidly. People are really starting to understand that you can’t just reorient the molecule a little, move the position of one atom and say, ‘This is a totally different chemical now.’ They really do act the same way,” said Brown, who also coauthored a June 2017 report that found PFOA and its cousin chemicals contaminate the drinking water of some 15 million Americans.

Still, amid the anti-regulatory push of the Trump administration and Republican Congress, some experts say the biggest regulatory changes, at least in the near-term, are likely to happen at the state level. In addition, industry could take action on its own. In a report published in November, the advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families detailed pledges made by leading marketers, including Apple and Target, to provide products without chemical classes such as phthalates and flame retardants.

What is really needed, Blum said, is for the chemical industry to find a “better business model.”

Some environmental advocates say decades of building up production capacity, a lack of government restrictions and a traditional focus on simply making chemicals that work and are cost-effective have perpetuated the industry’s status quo of whack-a-mole. Toxicity, they say, rarely enters the equation. In fact, of the 80,000-plus chemicals in commerce in the U.S., only a small percentage have been thoroughly tested by federal regulators for their safety. “If you’re the chemist and told you can’t use something, then you just try to find the next best thing that does the thing you need to do,” said Joel Tickner, an expert on environmental health and chemicals policies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Due also in part to a lack of standard tests for evaluating the health impacts of replacement chemicals, that next-best-thing tends to be something that carries similar toxic threats, Tickner and other experts said. Among the efforts of Tickner’s team to address the issue is a push to shift focus from simply eliminating suspect chemicals to achieving specific functions — with or without replacement chemicals. Companies and consumers might opt for water-based degreasers or ultrasonic cleaning instead of chemical solvents, for example, or electronic receipts rather than cash register receipts that contain BPA or BPS.

In some situations, they might discover that chemicals are being used where they’re simply not necessary. Robinson, of the CPSC, cites the example of organohalogens that “were found in a submersible bath toy for a child.”

“I’m not making this up,” she said.

This story was reported by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization based in Pasadena, Calif., that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues.