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When her black cat rapidly dropped from a healthy 14 pounds to a skeletal five pounds, it was natural for Arlene Blum to investigate whether a toxic chemical in her home might be to blame. The veterinarian’s diagnosis raised that possibility, and Blum had expertise in the harm that chemicals can cause. Her research as a chemist in the 1970s helped reveal the possible health hazards posed by flame retardants used in children’s sleepwear.
What surprised Blum, executive director of the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, Calif., was the chemical she discovered in Midnight’s blood, in the foam of her couch and in dust throughout her house. It was a substance only slightly different than the one that, decades earlier, she encountered in kids’ pajamas, leading to a federal ban on the compound for that sort of use.
While Blum can’t know for certain if flame retardant particles from the couch made her cat sick, the experience inspired her to take a fresh look at the problem of potentially hazardous chemicals in consumer products. She is among a growing number of scientists, advocates, parents and public officials who urge a fundamental shift in how society restricts toxic chemicals — moving away from a one-at-a-time whack-a-mole game to instead targeting whole classes of chemicals. The aim is to end the longstanding pattern of manufacturers simply swapping one toxic substance for another once a chemical, after years of research and advocacy, is phased out or banned.
This cycle has played out in a host of American household items. A popular chemical used in cash register receipts and to harden plastics in sippy cups and water bottles — bisphenol A, also known as BPA — has been widely replaced with a chemical cousin, bisphenol S. Studies now suggest BPS may be at least as harmful as BPA. Likewise, new phthalates — members of a chemical family used to make plastics softer and more flexible in food storage containers and children’s toys — have replaced earlier versions, but haven’t eliminated concerns about potential hazards. And then there are the flame retardants. For years, furniture makers added polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, to products to fend off flames. When scientists deemed those toxic, the industry switched to substances such as Tris, the same chemical prohibited in children’s pajamas.
Blum’s institute and other advocacy groups, including the Consumer Federation of America and Earthjustice, are cautiously encouraged about a pair of moves by federal officials this fall possibly signaling that the class approach to regulation is catching on. Tris, PBDEs and related fire retardants belong to a class called organohalogens. In September, the Consumer Product Safety Commission voted 3-to-2 to take steps toward banning this chemical group in certain consumer products. Scientists testifying before the commission underscored links between organohalogens and brain damage, immune disorders, reproductive problems and cancer.
In a separate 3-to-2 vote in October, the