A U.S. agency has warned the public about the dangers of flame retardants known as organohalogens that are found in baby toys, mattresses, furniture and electronics. (Pexels), CC BY-SA
A federal agency in the United States took action last month to ban an entire class of toxic flame retardants from being added to a wide variety of consumer products, from baby toys to televisions. It’s a first for the U.S. — and it could be done in Canada too.
In its review of the science, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission found there was “overwhelming” evidence that halogenated flame retardants, also known as organohalogens, present a “serious public health issue.” As a result, these flame retardants will be prohibited in all children’s products and toys (but not car seats), upholstered residential furniture, mattresses and the plastic casings on electronics.
Notably, and appropriately, the commission also found that “precautionary labelling” would not provide adequate protection against the potential hazards. Instead of merely warning consumers, the commission opted to prohibit the presence of these chemicals in consumer products.
These flame retardants pose serious health risks, particularly to vulnerable populations. They migrate easily out of consumer products, regardless of how they are used, and accumulate in people.
Flame retardants have been linked to hormonal disruption, including lower sperm counts and infertility, neurological impacts, cancer, immune disorders and other health effects. They are known endocrine disruptors that can have significant impacts on health, even at very low doses, especially during fetal development, puberty and pregnancy.
In Canada, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, have been detected in the breast milk of almost all women tested. These results are worrying given that even though PBDEs have been banned internationally under the Stockholm Convention, they are built into many long-lasting consumer products and furniture in our homes, schools and workplaces. Computers, couches, mattresses and carpets will continue to expose us to PBDEs for years to come.
And yet, Canadian regulators are all over the map with respect to flame retardants. On PBDEs, Canada infamously refused to take meaningful regulatory action. The government found most PBDEs to be toxic substances in 2006, but it declined to ban or restrict them in consumer products in 2008 or in 2016.
Conversely, Canada took strong (albeit much belated) regulatory action on the flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) in 2016, banning it in all consumer and industrial products with minor, time-limited exemptions.
Currently, Canada is completing a risk assessment for a grouping of 10 halogenated flame retardants. These regrettable substitutes are being used by industry as replacements for PDBEs and other controlled chemicals, but contain the same worrisome chemical structures.
In a haphazard and incomplete draft assessment in 2016, Canada proposed to declare only some of these flame retardants toxic, shielding the rest from regulation. Thus, Canada’s proposed regulatory approach for this large group of flame retardants is significantly at odds with the new U.S. approach, where almost all of these 10 flame retardants will be banned.
Canada could take a more coherent, precautionary path on flame retardants under current law. It could follow the U.S. lead and ban toxic flame retardants in entire classes of consumer products.
Our legal research shows the federal government could act in one of two ways. (In the future, there may also be a third option.)
The first option is for the federal government to simply ban classes of products containing halogenated flame retardants under the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act (CCPSA), a similar approach to that taken in the U.S.
Canada has done this before, when it banned products made of polyurethane foam containing tris (2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP) that were intended for children younger than three. Likewise, existing CCPSA regulations limit – but do not ban – the use of flame retardants in some products such as children’s pyjamas.
One drawback to this option is that the aim of CCPSA is only to protect human health and safety. The act is not meant to protect ecosystems or wildlife like killer whales and belugas whose survival is also jeopardized by the flame retardants that enter waterways and bioaccumulate in the food web. Still, keeping toxic consumer goods off shelves stops new sources of exposure, and has clear benefits for humans and wildlife.