Is Fire Retardant A Harmful Toxin?

For decades, Americans have depended on special chemicals to protect them from fire. But now, there are serious questions about the safety of those chemicals. Two states have already banned them, and six more are considering it. CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews has this exclusive report. Be sure to tune in to tonight's CBS Evening News for part 2 of this investigation.



She grew up on an island off the coast of Maine, but when Hannah Pingree had her blood tested, she found 19 different flame retardant chemicals in her system.

"It makes me angry that I could have a child in the next couple of years who would be impacted by these chemicals in my body," Pingree said.

"And so if you live out here … do we all have it?" CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews asked.

"If I have it, you have it, we all have it," Pingree said.

We all have it, because for 30 years, flame-retardant chemicals - hundreds of millions of pounds of them - have been embedded in furniture and consumer products, in an effort to slow down fires and reduce deaths and injuries.

But scientists are now raising red flags about the widely used brominated flame retardants, called PBDE's.

"I am concerned about developing children, concerned about exposure before you are born," said Linda Birnbaum, a senior toxicologist at the EPA. She is concerned because PBDEs cause the kind of health effects in young animals that are warning signs for infant humans.

"They can affect the developing brain and they can affect the developing reproductive system," she said. "There is very limited evidence whether or not they can cause cancer."

"This is concentrating in human beings, just like PCBs," said Maine state toxicologist Deborah Rice, a former EPA scientist.

She once studied PCBs, toxic chemicals banned in the 1970s. She now compares them to the chemical Deca, the one PBDE still produced in America.

"I concluded that Deca was toxic," she said.

"Did you come away believing these chemicals are capable of causing brain damage?" Andrews asked. "Yes they absolutely are," she replied.

Unlike other industrial chemicals, brominated flame retardants build up in the human body. These chemicals are in our furniture, cars, children's products, electronics and even our food. And most of what we absorb does not go away.

"And we think the time for a ban is now," Pingree said.

As young as she appears, Hannah Pingree is the House Majority Leader in the Maine legislature, which last year voted to phase out Deca. She was alarmed by evidence PBDEs are found in polar bears, in eagles and in human breast milk, where they pass from mother to child.

"They come into our bodies, they build up in our fat tissue," Pingree said. "They are in the natural environment and they are very, very difficult to get rid of."

In a report to be released Tuesday, Russell Long of the environmental group Friends of the Earth documents how products like this car seat can contain up to 9 percent bromine, which might explain why Americans have 10 times more of these chemicals than anyone on earth.

"These are ridiculous amounts of fire retardants to be putting into car seats when there are perfectly safe ways of getting fire safety without the chemical use," Long said.

The bromine industry, which declined our requests for an on camera interview, has stressed in ad campaigns, that its chemicals are necessary to save lives...

"We can't take a chance on fire safety," one says.

In a statement, one manufacturer, the Chemtura Corporation, says hundreds of studies have "concluded that DecaBDE was safe for continued use." The industry argues there is no conclusive proof of harm to humans.

"To sit around and wait for the chemical industry to admit there was a problem would be waiting too long," Pingree said.

The EPA is completing a safety review of Deca, and six more states are considering bans. The question is whether Deca's ability to slow down fire is now outweighed by evidence it's toxic to animals, and showing up in humans.
  • Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.

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