How toxic flame retardant chemicals become-and stay-ubiquitous in our homes and bodies

A new report highlights the failure of federal regulations to keep harmful flame retardant chemicals out of homes and consumer products. Toxic by Design, released today by the Endocrine Disruptors Action Group (EDAction), investigates how flaws in Canada’s regulatory approach to toxic flame retardants results in these chemicals being present in all bodies tested in Canada. While the report is Canadian, most of the arguments hold true for other nations in the global north. The main argument of our report is that regulatory loopholes allow toxic chemicals to be designed into our everyday lives.


Image from Toxic By Design (2016) report. Illustration by Adam Cross. CC

Toxic By Design coins the term “built in exposures” to talk about the spatial distribution and ubiquity of flame retardant chemicals:

Built-In Exposures are exposures to human-made chemicals that are embedded in everyday objects and infrastructures, including materials used to make our homes and buildings, in food and food packaging, in furniture and clothing, in cosmetics, and in commonly owned electronics, among other things. The ubiquity of these exposures make them extremely difficult to avoid or eliminate altogether, and in some cases, lead to adverse human and environmental health impacts.

This kind of distribution of distribution of chemical externalities will be familiar to discard studies followers who work on plastics, lead, nuclear fall out, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and other forms of pollution that have defined the boundaries that separate body and environment, inside from outside, nature from urban areas, and nations from one another. The case of flame retardants is particularly striking, as they also endures in time: the “manufacture, sale, import, and reuse [of PCBs, a toxic flame retardant,] have been prohibited in Canada since 1977, there are regulatory exceptions that allow PCBs to continue to be used. Today they remain in aging infrastructures and buildings, continuously creating new exposures. PCBs have become legacy chemicals, and contemporary global monitoring studies have failed to find a person alive that does not have PCBs in their blood, despite their ban decades ago.”



Our report argues that these chemicals, which have been linked to health effects including hormone disruption, heart disease, cognitive impairment, and reduced fertility in both men and women, continue to circulate not despite regulation, but because of it. Two particular regulations are of interest. The first has to do with allowing the chemicals in parts of consumer goods, even if the manufacture of the chemical is banned:

Some of the most common flame retardant chemicals used today have been declared “toxic” by the federal government and their manufacture has been prohibited. However, Canadian regulations prohibiting the manufacture and use of PBDEs explicitly do not apply to consumer products or parts of products, such as foam. For this reason, Canadians continue to be exposed to these chemicals regularly. Moreover, the implementation of strict flammability standards for consumer products and furniture may exacerbate the problem as those standards often result in the addition of high volumes of flame retardant chemicals, both those that are already known to be toxic, as well as their “substitutes” that have not yet been assessed for toxicity.

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The second has to do with using alternative flame retardants that produce similar health effects:

As alternatives to PCB and PBDEs proliferate, exposures to EDCs are not being eliminated, rather these new substances are becoming sources of new exposures. The long-standing practice of regulating chemicals one-by-one has triggered a replacement game between regulators and the chemical industry. As one chemical is prohibited, industry inserts a similar chemical in its place, triggering a new round of risk assessment studies and contestations. This process continually delays the possibility of removing flame retardant chemicals from manufactured goods.

These are just two of the ways that legal, political, and scientific norms are critiqued in the report. What’s notable about this report compared to other policy-oriented reports is that it takes a system approach to analyzing pollution. Rather than dwelling on health effects, it scales into concerns about reproductive justice. Instead of simply saying that regulations have loopholes, it looks at the way standards and policy fail to dovetail, leaving gaps. The report is an example of what happens when policy-oriented researchers take a discard studies approach that questions premises of what seems normal or given, and analyzes the wider role of society and culture, including social norms, economic systems, forms of labor, ideology, infrastructure, and power.



The full report can be found here:

What can the public do? The report authors have teamed up with Write2Know, a letter-writing platform that invites the public to share their concerns about the persistent harms of flame retardant chemicals with the government. Follow this link for the Write2Know Letter

Dr. Max Liboiron is the managing editor of Discard Studies and one of the authors of Toxic By Design.