After two decades researching the impacts of toxic chemicals in the northwestern Atlantic, the Marine Environmental Research Institute has become increasingly engaged in advocacy to stop the flow of dangerous chemicals into the sea. Most recently we have been working to stop the alarming contamination of our oceans and people by brominated chemicals used as flame retardants.
Why do we Americans have the world’s highest levels of brominated flame retardants in our bodies? The Chicago Tribune’s recent investigative series Playing with Fire tells the story of the collusion, deception and distorted science behind the bromine industry’s promotion of brominated flame retardant chemicals known to be harmful to human health and ineffective in preventing fire. Also see the stunning op-ed by Nicholas Kristof in the Sunday New York Times: Are You Safe on that Sofa? which summarizes the Chicago Tribune stories and connects flame retardants to the tobacco industry and money politics.
A team of journalists devoted a year to documenting a decades-long campaign of deception by industry interests that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, impaired fertility, birth defects, and IQ deficits in children.
To read the Chicago Tribune series, follow these links:
We hope the media’s shocking revelations about flame retardants will help raise awareness among American consumers and policymakers about the pressing need to halt the damage to our health and our oceans caused by these unnecessary and toxic chemicals.
Thank you for your active engagement and your support of MERI’s ongoing work to stop toxic chemical pollution of our ocean planet. We cannot continue to poison our bodies and our oceans with man-made toxic chemicals if we are to survive. In this Insider, I hope you will see how our work has evolved to meet the challenges and how our recent discoveries are driving public policies and informed citizen actions.
Together, we will make a difference!
Furniture Flame Retardants in Baby Harbor Seals
With years of evidence to back it up, the Marine Environmental Research Institute became involved with flame retardants when Dr. Susan Shaw and colleagues first reported that PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), toxic flame retardants in widespread use, were present in the tissues of baby harbor seals. PBDEs were also found in many species of commercial fish – hake, herring, flounder, and mackerel. This was the first report showing that flame retardants are contaminating the entire northwestern Atlantic marine food web from the bottom to the top. This alarming discovery helped persuade the Maine legislature to ban the neurotoxic flame retardant Deca in 2007, becoming the second state to do so and prompting a nation-wide phase out of Deca in 2010.
In 2010, Dr. Shaw was the lead author on a ground-breaking report showing that brominated flame retardants have no proven fire safety benefits – in fact, they make fires more toxic and deadly. For the key findings and recommendations, read the San Antonio Statement signed by more than 300 scientists from 30 countries:
Dr. Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a co-author on the 2010 report, remarked, “The question is, why do we need these chemicals in furniture and baby products at all?”
“New” Flame Retardants in Seals
The bromine chemical industry responded to scientists’ concerns and the subsequent bans and phase-outs of PBDEs by introducing “new” replacement fire retardants described as safe and eco-friendly. However, the replacement formulation for penta-BDE, Firemaster 550, far from being biodegradable and harmless, persists in the environment and may be more bioaccumulative and toxic than its predecessors, the PBDEs.
Already two principal chemicals in Firemaster 550, TBB and TBPH, are being detected in baby harbor seals from Maine to New York, according to Dr. Shaw’s research to be published this fall.These latest flame retardants are widely used in furniture and also baby products containing polyurethane foam. TBPH is similar to a phthalate that is banned in children’s products and which California lists as a carcinogen and developmental toxin.
“Replacement chemicals like Firemaster 550 and others are often structurally the ‘chemical cousins’ of the banned PBDEs. They just have new names,” says Shaw. “We are now discovering these ‘new’ flame retardants in the tissues of harbor seals along the Eastern seaboard. This is a serious problem for the animals and for our food supply, because once these chemicals permeate the oceans, they will persist and recycle through the food web for decades.”
Seals are a sentinel species, biologically similar to humans with similar responses to toxic chemicals. There is every likelihood that, like the seals, these new fire retardants are accumulating in our bodies. Without research, we would never know which “new” chemicals are reaching levels that endanger the health of marine animals and people.
What YOU Can Do
You can help support MERI’s ongoing research, education, and advocacy programs to protect ocean life and human health. We need your help!
Get in touch with your Congressional representatives and urge them to support the Safe Chemicals Act (S.847). You can find your representatives’ contact information here. More information about the Safe Chemicals Act can be found here.