Controversy Over Fire-Retardant Chemicals

wyatt andrews 5/20
For the last 30 years, manufacturers have infused millions of pounds of brominated flame-retardant chemicals into upholstery, electronics and children's products to slow down fires.

But some of those chemicals - called PBDE's - are leaching out, building up in people, and may be toxic, CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports.

"They can affect the developing brain and they can affect the developing reproductive system," said EPA senior toxicologist Linda Birbaum.

Birnbaum is one of many scientists worried about the chemical Deca, the last PBDE made in America. It causes serious health effects in young animals - a red flag, she says, for humans.

"I am very concerned for the human population," Birnbaum said.

So far, two states, Maine and Washington, are phasing out Deca. Six others, including California, are considering similar bans.

Despite the growing concern over flame-retardant chemicals, the industry, and groups aligned with industry, is lobbying to increase the use of chemicals in a wide range of consumer products.

For example, to fight the state bans, the bromine industry creates neutral-sounding front groups like "Californians for Fire Safety" to argue that Deca is safe and saves lives.

Another example: When the Consumer Product Safety Commission proposed new standards for furniture, "without requiring the use of [any] flame retardant chemicals," another group close to industry, the National Association of State Fire Marshals, began lobbying for standards that would require chemicals.

Fire Marshals President John Dean says his group is not pro-chemical, just pro safety.

"We just don't want to put ourselves in the position of losing more lives and property," he said.

Critics point out the Marshals have accepted money from the bromine industry, and shared a lobbyist, Peter Sparber and Associates.

"Is there a conflict there, where you are sharing a lobbyist with the chemical industry?" Andrews asked.

"I have not seen it to be a problem," Dean said.

Read Andrews' previous report on the controversial chemical.

Here's who does see a problem - the nation's firefighters.

"You think the Fire Marshals association is too close to the chemical industry?" Andrews asked.

"Well, it concerns me," said Harold Schaitberger, who opposes brominated flame retardants, because when they create toxic fumes when they burn.

"There's other ways to provide time and to inhibit flame spread without using these products, which I think are unnecessarily dangerous," he said.

Some companies, like IKEA and Dell have already phased out brominated chemicals.

The bromine industry which declined our requests to go on says studies prove Deca is safe. But leading scientists, manufacturers, and the firefighters say after decades of literally sitting on PBDE's … it's time to walk away.

  • Wyatt Andrews
    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.