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Scott Jagow: If anything catches fire in your house, it's not a good thing. But if it's your TV or home computer, chances are, the fire won't spread too far.
Most appliances contain fire retardants. These chemicals can save your home and your life. But they might also pose a health risk. Two of these fire retardants have been phased out over the years. Some states have started putting restrictions on a third.
Today, we begin a series on this issue. Here's Sasha Aslanian of American RadioWorks.
Sasha Aslanian: The flame retardant at the center of the environmental debate right now is called deca. It's a good flame retardant.
At a plastics manufacturer in Winona, Minn., engineers demonstrate how deca works. They reach into a ventilated compartment and try to light things on fire using a Bunsen burner. The engineers poke a piece of fire-resistant white plastic shaped like a popsicle stick into the flame.
Steve Maki, vice president of the company RTP, points out how the stick stops burning as soon as the torch is pulled away:
Steve Maki: But you saw again how quickly, when you remove that flame within a matter of what was probably a second or so, that fire went out.
That stick was treated with deca. Next, the engineers try a plastic stick with no flame retardant. The bar of plastic curls like melted wax.
Maki: The whole bar is engulfed in flame right now. There's dripping particles of the polypropylene going down, igniting whatever source is below. Pretty much this bar is gonna burn all the way up — there won't be anything left.
Not what you'd like to have happen at your house.
But the rap on deca is that it's spreading in the environment, and it's toxic. Deca is showing up in pretty much everyone's body.
At a health clinic in Minneapolis, 30-year-old Sara Grochowski participates in a blood test sponsored by an environmental group. She's brought along her baby boy, Lucas.
Sara Grochowski: Well so far they drew five vials of blood. And then, we had to do a 24-hour urine sample.
Flame retardant chemicals accumulate in human body fat. For a nursing mom like Grochowski, the fat becomes breast milk — Lucas' food.
Grochowski: He's pretty much still exclusively nursing, and I think that alone is what makes me the most anxious. And so if it contains, you know, some of these chemicals that I've been exposed to . . . you know, I think that would make me the most irate.
When industrial chemicals show up in breast milk, it gets people's attention.
The flame-retardant problem first came to light about 10 years ago, when a Swedish scientist, Ake Bergman, found the chemicals in human milk.
Ake Bergmann: If you show it in polar bears or in fish, no one really cares. And if you go for humans, then it becomes real. And the mother's milk was really what was the ignition of the whole thing.
In 1998, American scientists started checking for flame retardants. They found levels 10 to 100 times higher than in Europe. Worse, the chemicals resemble some well-known environmental bad guys — PCBs banned in the 1970s.
Tom McDonald is a former toxicologist with California's Environmental Protection Agency who studied the chemicals:
Tom McDonald: It became very clear early on, when we looked at the structure and saw that these act in many similar ways to the PCBs, causing harm to the developing brain in terms of behavior and memory in offspring, as well as alterations to the reproductive organs.
In 2003, California became the first American state to follow the European Union, banning two common flame retardants. Nine other states passed similar laws. The American manufacturer stopped making the banned chemicals.
The restrictions didn't touch deca. But this year, nine states considered bans on deca and two — Maine and Washington — passed restrictions. The EPA lists it as a possible carcinogen, and in animal studies, it's been shown to harm brain development in rats and mice.
It can take decades for science to reach a conclusion, but the marketplace isn't waiting.
Mark Rossi of Clean Production Action, a nonprofit that promotes safer chemicals, says the health care sector in particular has been demanding alternatives to deca.
Mark Rossi: They buy,
right, lots of computers, they buy TVs to put in patient rooms. And the health care sector's actually been a real leader in looking at the chemicals in the products that they're buying and telling their suppliers "We don't want these chemicals."
Flame-retardant manufacturers are fighting back with TV ads and lobbying campaigns.
Spokesman John Kyte says deca has been exhaustively studied and has a very good track record. Kyte says electronics makers are bowing to pressure from environmentalists.
John Kyte: It's an effective tactic, but it's a wholly unfair tactic. Because it doesn't rely on science and analysis and research and fact, it relies on emotion.
States will have to put those emotions aside in order to measure the danger they see — fires — against a danger they can't see — how flame retardants affect the developing brain.
In St. Paul, Minn., I'm Sasha Aslanian for Marketplace and American RadioWorks.