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California Recall Burns Flame Retardant

Bill Clinton advised California Governor-for-now Gray Davis to start doing more governor-like things to survive the Oct. 7 recall election.

The first thing Davis did in response was to sign a bill last Saturday phasing out two flame retardants by 2008, making California the only state to do so.

I hope no one dies or is injured from Davis “acting” like a governor.

Davis banned two so-called “brominated flame retardants” (BFRs) -- namely Penta-BDE and Octa-BDE -- widely used in furniture and electronic equipment. First developed in the 1960s, BFRs have saved thousands of lives.

A room fire can rapidly escalate to the point where enough heat is generated that all combustible material in the room bursts into flames. This “flash-over” can occur in a matter of minutes. Added to plastics and fabrics, BFRs slow the initial burn rate -- as much as 15 times -- giving room occupants more time to escape.

Though BFRs aren’t the only type of chemical flame retardant, they are the most effective flame retardants when both cost and performance are considered.

Despite the clear value of BFRs, anti-chemical activists oppose their use, claiming the chemicals do not readily degrade in the environment -- called “persistence” -- and can accumulate in wildlife via the food chain. Despite the inclusiveness of the claim, only Penta-BDE is known to persist in the environment and, even then, at very low levels.

The activists succeeded in bringing matters to a head in California by hyperventilating about supposedly alarming increases of BFRs in humans and human breast milk.

A July 2003 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, for example, reported detecting a median of 16.5 billionths of a gram of BFRs per gram of fat among 32 California women compared with zero BFRs in serum samples from the 1960s.

A 1999 study in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health reported that the concentrations of BFRs in the breast milk from a sample of Swedish women increased on average from 0.07 billionths of a gram per gram of fat in 1972 to 4.02 billionths of a gram per gram of fat in 1997.

Of course, it is a fundamental principle of toxicology that mere exposure to a substance does not necessarily mean that the exposure is harmful.

In the case of BFRs, despite 40 years of real-world use, no evidence indicates that BFRs have caused any harm whatsoever to humans, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxics Substances and Disease Registry and the European Commission.

Ironically, the European Union nonetheless banned the same chemicals as California earlier this year, using the lame excuse that more scientific data on the chemicals needs to be gathered before their absolute safety could be guaranteed -- a condition that could never be met by any substance, including water, sugar and salt.

The California ban of the BFRs is even hasty from an environmental perspective. Penta-BDE may persist somewhat in the environment (as do a myriad of other natural and manmade substances), but alternative flame retardants will have their own environmental impacts and costs.

For example, in order to achieve the same level of fire protection as BFRs, higher quantities of other flame retardants (chlorinated, phosphorus, nitrogen and inorganic) will be used, burdening the environment with increased levels of plastic additives manufactured and transported. And who knows what the ultimate environmental fates of the substitutes will be?

Moreover, it’s not clear that Penta-BDE is continuing to accumulate in the environment because of use as a flame retardant.

Penta-BDE was found in the environment in increasing quantities during the 1980s, but levels began declining in the early 1990s. The Penta-BDE levels found in the 1980s may be explained by the brief use of the chemical (not as a flame retardant) by the oil industry.

Finally, Penta-BDE was detected in the environment 40 years before the commercialization of any BFRs and so it may have natural sources. 

Any rational government decision-making process should balance the risks to human health and safety and to the environment from BFRs with their benefits. It seems that BFRs saving thousands of real lives should easily outweigh imaginary risks to human health and the debatable environmental impacts.   

But Davis only saw signing the ban into law as one that might help him survive Oct. 7. That alone is reason for California’s voters to recall him. His risking their lives for personal political survival is beyond the pale.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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