What threat do flame retardants pose to New Yorkers?

This month, the Chicago Tribune published a devastating investigation about the use of flame retardants in furniture and other common household products. Not only do flame retardants fail to prevent fires, the Tribune found, but the chemicals included in them cause cancer and threaten the development of fetuses and young children. These chemicals have subsequently turned up in the environment across the United States. Yet for decades, an industry group has successfully promoted and sold flame retardants throughout the country as essential fire safety tools, often relying on a doctor’s heart-wrenching testimony about child burn victims that turned out to be fabricated.

At The New York World, we’re curious about whether flame retardants have shown up in our environment, and whether the state has taken any steps to regulate them.

We want to know: What threat do flame retardants pose in New York State? 

If you have information or insight to share, write us, tweet @thenyworld or comment below.

What we found

Hazardous chemicals used in flame retardants are widely present in both the environment and in household products, and New York state is no exception. A 2009 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the Hudson Raritan Estuary had the highest concentration of any of the nation’s coastal waterways of chemicals called PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers. NOAA described PBDEs as “man-made toxic chemicals used as flame retardants in a wide array of consumer products.”

Flame retardants have been detected in a variety of products for young children. A 2011 study by a researcher from Duke University found that 80 out of 101 cushions that her group tested in car seats, cribs and other baby furnishings contained at least one flame retardant. High quantities of these chemicals are used in polyurethane foam products to reduce its flammability. “These aren’t parts per millions,” said Kathleen Curtis, the executive director of Clean and Healthy New York, an advocacy group seeking to ban flame retardants. “We’re talking about 6 to 12 percent of the product.”

In 2004, New York State banned two types of PBDEs used as flame retardants, known as penta and octa. (BDEs are named for the number of bromides in their chemical composition.) However, decaBDE remains legal in New York even though similar concerns have been raised about its toxicity, and chemical producers and the Environmental Protection Agency have reached an agreement to phase out decaBDE nationally by the end of 2013. A widely used substitute for PBDEs, particularly pentaDBE, is chlorinated Tris — but that was also designated as a carcinogen by the state of California last year. The Duke study found chlorinated Tris in 36 of the 101 baby products that it sampled.

The New York State legislature is currently weighing a ban on chlorinated Tris. In 2011, New York became the first state in the nation to ban one form of chlorinated Tris known as TCEP. A bill this year to ban its more common form, TDCPP, was passed unanimously by the State Assembly in March and by the State Senate’s Committee on Environmental Conservation this month. On May 15, the bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee, where it is still awaiting action.

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