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Safety Of Flame Retardants Called Into Question

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In the final hours of 2018, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law banning the use of 11 flame retardants in furniture, mattresses, carpeting, electronic equipment, and more.

Firefighters and children’s health advocates strongly supported the measure, but Governor Charlie Baker declined to sign it.

Now, legislators have refiled the bill.

Proponents of the ban say the flame retardants in question are toxic, and that they don’t actually provide the intended fire protection. So, what’s the evidence?  

“The weight of that evidence certainly varies depending on which of these flame retardant chemicals you're talking about, said Kate Hoffman, a research assistant professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Hoffman is a winner of the 2018 Joan M. Daisey Outstanding Young Scientist Award for her work looking at our exposure to toxic chemicals. 

"Many of the compounds have been linked to negative health outcomes, including things like reduced fertility, impacts on children's health and their IQs, and for some, increases in the risk of cancer,” Hoffman said.

Flame retardants can be a significant portion of the actual material that that's being made or sold.

For instance, in things like furniture, chemicals are sprayed on the foam of the furniture and can be found at a rate that can be measured in pounds.

And while we’re not presumably eating directly off of couches, offgasing happens. Our bodies warm the couch when we sit down and can increase this release of chemicals. Over time, sitting on the furniture causes friction and little particles break off into the air and dust in our houses.

Shy of this statewide ban however, there are alternatives ways that consumers right now can do to try to avoid these chemicals.

“There's some research to suggest that improved hygiene helps -- so things like washing your hands more frequently or washing hands before you eat. Also, vacuuming the dust out of your home more frequently could potentially be ways to reduce your exposure,” Hoffman said.

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Web content created by Liz Lerner. 

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Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.