Flame retardants in your earbuds? Toxic chemicals in homes? Left and right are sick of It.
Joan Blades, co-founder of Living Room Conversations and MoveOn.org, is left politically. John Gable, co-founder of AllSides.com, is lean-right politically.
Sometimes the left and right agree on things for opposite reasons. Sometimes for the same reason. And still, nothing happens.
Many on the left are concerned about the potential health risks of chemicals in our products. Some on the right are concerned about that too.
Many on the right are concerned about government regulations that are wasteful or actually help special interests to the detriment of the public. Some on the left are concerned about that too, especially when the government and big business collude.
Take the case of earbuds. It may surprise you to learn that there may be flame retardants in your earbuds. According to Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, “manufacturers were initially told that they needed to add a flame retardant for their earbuds to meet revised standards”. But tests showed no safety benefit from adding these flame retardants.
Why would this standard exist? Every day, all around the world, independent committees meet in stuffy conference rooms, share a spread of pastries, and devise codes and standards for the performance, safety, and efficiency of all kinds of products in your home. These standards are voluntary for manufacturers, but many are adopted by governments as regulations. Often, this process is as esoteric and technical as it sounds. Other times, under the cloak of boring bureaucracy, chemical companies hijack these committees and shape the codes to boost the sales of their products at the expense of our health.
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How do they do it? They pay consultants to sit on these volunteer committees and influence the outcome. Academic scientists, public health advocates, and others with an expertise and stake in product safety usually don’t have the time or budget to fly to places like Geneva or Vladivostok to participate. As a result, motivated industry hired guns have free rein to draft the codes as they please.
Perhaps the most egregious exploitation is by the flame retardant industry. Gaming this system is how flame retardant producers have driven the use of their harmful chemicals in products ranging from nursing pillows to building insulation despite providing no fire safety benefit.
It all dates back to the 1970’s when smoking was common, and consequently, house fires. Most agree that products like furniture and TVs should be designed to minimize the risk of starting or spreading a fire. The flame retardant producers seized on that concern to push for fire-safety codes that could only be met with their chemicals. The problem is that no one in these committees asked whether the chemicals actually worked in these scenarios. Unfortunately, the answer is often no.
No one realized how harmful these chemicals were. Just one flame retardant, a PBDE that was used in furniture, has caused a loss of 3 to 5 IQ points in American children, not to mention uncounted cases of cancer, neurological and reproductive impairments.
The chemical industry still isn’t satisfied. For example, flame retardant producers have been trying to drive the International Electrotechnical Commission to set a “candle standard” to protect electronics from ignition from a very small open flame. By its design, this standard would lead to the use of hundreds of millions of pounds of unneeded flame retardant chemicals each year in electronics casings. This is despite the fact that the National Fire Protection Association and others have shown that such a standard would not provide a fire safety benefit.
Even when the lack of fire safety benefit is blatantly obvious, the chemical industry has prevailed in setting its preferred standards. For example, thanks to companies like Dow, some US home-building codes require (California is an exception) that below-grade insulation be treated with potentially toxic flame retardants. Below-grade insulation is below the ground, where there is no fire source to ignite and no oxygen to maintain it.
Recently, Underwriters Laboratories announced a $1.8 billion initiative, part of which exaggerates fire risks and promotes an unnecessary furniture flammability standard that would require costly tests done by Underwriters Laboratories. In real-life fires, passing open-flame tests does not provide a meaningful fire safety benefit, but being required to meet these standards can lead to the use of harmful flame retardant chemicals.
We need to find ways to safeguard standards-setting against industry manipulation and government regulation that is not in our best interests. Many on the right and left agree that this problem needs to be addressed, but the problem is driven by actions behind closed doors that are not sexy enough to get news coverage and popular attention. So how do we fix it?
Shine a light on the problem, and demand our elected representatives take action. There are many elected officials that want to bridge divides to address common problems and to reinstate the practice of bi-parisanship. Let’s provide the foundation upon which they can do this.