Fanning the Flames

How Banning Flame Retardant Chemicals Puts Consumers at Risk


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In July 2015, a coalition of environmental activist groups asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban certain uses of an entire class of flame retardant chemicals based on faulty claims about the risks. Specifically, they petitioned the CPSC to ban the use of all organohalogen flame retardant products in upholstered furniture sold for home use in mattresses, mattress pads, and in the plastic casing of all electronic devices. These groups allege that trace exposures of these chemicals pose health risks, and that products that contain them provide no benefits. Both claims fall apart under scrutiny.

The CPSC has received comments and held hearings. It is now deliberating on whether such bans are necessary, with a decision expected later this year. Congress should pay attention and provide oversight as needed, because such bans or overly burdensome flame retardant regulations could undermine public health and safety and contribute to fire risks.

Evidence is scant that trace human exposures to organohalogens through consumer products pose a significant public health risk, while fire risks are real, verifiable, and substantial. Moreover, because not all organohalogens are the same, banning this entire class of chemicals makes no scientific sense. Banning even a limited number of uses for an entire category of flame retardant chemicals is not only unwarranted, it will eliminate currently valuable uses and market development of future uses. The regrettable result could be unnecessary and preventable loss of life from fires that expand faster in the absence of these products.  

Although there is on ongoing debate about the efficacy of flame retardants in certain applications, there is sufficient research and data to demonstrate that organohalogens provide benefits in many applications and have the potential for valuable new uses in the future.

Despite the petitioners’ claims to the contrary, there is no shortage of safety regulations covering these products. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is already evaluating the safety of these products and other flame retardant chemicals under a number of initiatives. Overregulation and alarmism about these products will do more harm than good by forcing valuable products off the market.

In addition to safety regulations related to potential effects of flame retardant chemicals, regulators also set flammability standards that may encourage the use of such chemicals. In fact, CPSC’s flammability standards and standards set by the State of California play a major role in this marketplace, and may have helped advance markets for chemical flame retardants. Activist groups may have a legitimate complaint about flammability standards  that essentially force, or at least strongly push, manufactures to choose products and applications that may not provide the best protection and lock other options out of the market.

There is debate among fire safety experts within industry and private standard-setting organizations about what type of standards make the most sense for various materials and types of consumer products. This debate is best conducted within the private sector, allowing for private certification systems to compete and for manufacturers to select which ones best apply to their products. Consumers should also be free to select products based upon their own research and preferences.

Ideally, rather than ban chemicals, a better approach would allow a more dynamic market process that relies on private standards and certification systems for flammability standards. Such private systems allow for innovation and swift adjustments to technologies in accordance with improving information and technology, as well as changes in product designs, consumer demand, and lifestyles. As detailed in this paper, the regulatory history reveals that governments are ill-equipped to make such decisions, and their bad decisions are difficult—if not impossible—to reverse. In fact, government involvement, starting with mandatory flammability standards has launched this issue as a “problem,” which is now being exacerbated with yet more governmental regulation and bans.