Red-Faced Over Green Demean Print E-mail
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Written by Mike Buetow   
Friday, 28 September 2012 14:54

About three years ago, I wrote the following on the topic of brominated flame-retardants: “BFRs may be bad, but what’s the alternative?”

At the time, I felt the push by certain environmental groups to get OEMs to stop using BFRs was based on a well-intentioned but misguided understanding of the science, as well as a rush to forfeit a working solution without a plausible backup plan. I chalked up their efforts as so much attention-seeking.

Well, the “science” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and I may have been the one who was misled.

A Chicago Tribune investigation into flame retardants has found that not only are they unnecessary and potentially toxic, but that an industry council has led a long campaign of deception and distortion on the efficacy of these chemicals.

As it turns out, the Tribune revealed, we have been fooled. We have been told time and again that, sans flame retardants, including BFRs, the risks were severe that products would burn. That was a lie. We also were told that the chemicals were safe and even good for the environment. More lies.

As the Tribune series starts off: “A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world. And adults? Blood levels of certain widely used flame retardants doubled in adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004.” The series goes on to list the various cancers and other health issues tied to the chemicals.

The paper’s findings, published in a series this summer (, detailed a lengthy and extensive – and largely successful – effort by a group called Citizens for Fire Safety to sell more of the chemicals to unsuspecting US manufacturers.
Citizens for Fire Safety is actually a trade group made up of the three largest makers of the chemicals in the world: Albemarle, Chemtura and ICL. That trio reportedly controls 40% of the world’s market for flame retardants. The foxes were not only in the hen house; they were directing the chickens to pretend they were safe.

As the fight over the efficacy of FRs has reached the US Congress, Citizens for Fire Safety has effectively turned over its media campaign to the American Chemistry Council. The ACC, for its part, is fighting tooth and nail to keep Congress from enacting any regulations that might hamper its ability to sell its products, and has been kept running most of the year, defending the use of flame retardant chemicals. It also puts to good use the well-worn trope that any change in the law will necessarily mean a loss of jobs, a contrivance that suggests that developing and selling safe chemicals would for some reason require fewer workers than would developing toxic ones. As if.

Not that the Environmental Protection Agency is blameless. According to the Tribune, while chemical makers were flooding the market with toxic products, the EPA basically looked the other way, failing to rigorously evaluate the health risks.

Meanwhile, in Wake Forest, NC, state officials are honing in on two local PCB assemblers as the sources of an extensive water contamination issue. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has not cited the companies by name, but a check of the address provided by the agency suggests the companies under scrutiny could be Team Electric and Circuit Board Assemblers. A third company, C-Tron, has also been mentioned in reports as a possible source. The DENR says the area is rife with soil and water contamination caused by the discharge of trichloroethylene. Nearly two dozen area homes have tested positive for TCE, some at dangerously high levels.

None of us pines for more governmental regulations in our lives. But as one of the whistleblowers in the Wake Forest dumping cases dryly noted, “That’s why we have to have a properly funded DENR and EPA, because if we don’t have it, you get to wait five or six years, and your children drink poisoned water.”

More than ever, designers must take into account the environmental impact of a product. To that end, Technology Forecasters Inc. has developed a new Web-based training program to teach the basics of environmental design, so it is done in the most efficient, cost-effective way. Take a look at our digital issue this month for more on this exciting program. And remain diligent about those who play fast and loose with environmental health; a few bad apples do spoil the barrel.

P.S. See us at SMTAI this month, booths 244-246.

Last Updated on Monday, 01 October 2012 13:43


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