Is Walmart’s Ban on Brominated (PBDE) Flame Retardants Just a PR Stunt?

Flame Retardants in FoamThere are a lot of opinions out there about whether Wal-mart’s decision earlier this year to impose their own ban on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) found in couches, computers and baby strollers was the right one.  They basically circumvented the US regulatory system to impose what many refer to as “retailer regulation.”

But aren’t PBDEs already banned, you ask?  As I Am Not a Guinea Pig explains, the use of halogenated flame retardants, a broad family of compounds that includes PBDEs, has increased over the past several decades. As some are banned or restricted, others are introduced. They remain common in many consumer products from electronics, to furniture, to carpet padding, to clothing and children’s products.

Is it just a PR move, a stunt to garner attention?

Yes.  I’m sure it is.  But we’ve been doing the same thing in our retail store for five years now.  In fact, our store was created around barring specific chemicals from products in response to concerns from parents and advocacy groups.  Americans are up in arms about the absurd number of untested chemicals in unlabeled products.  If you want to sell stuff, you have to listen to your customers.  This is a great example of a grassroots movement that created a tangible change (BPA, anyone?).  We vote for safer products with our dollars, and you can bet that a savvy – albeit not perfect – company like Wal-mart is listening closely with an ear to the ground.

Should they be imposing such a restriction when the EPA hasn’t even banned these chemicals?  Isn’t this something the government should handle?

Yes, on both counts.  The government should be handling it – BUT, as we’ve discussed over and over in the case of BPA, we can’t expect that to happen anytime soon with our broken system.  It leaves consumers to do the research and insist on safer products while continuing to work for change in the current system.  The Washington Post said it well:

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency cited PBDEs as “chemicals of concern” and said it intended to try to limit any new use of them. But that proposal has been stuck in bureaucratic review.  The nation’s chemical laws, created 35 years ago, make it extremely difficult for the federal government to ban or restrict a chemical’s use. Regulators must prove a chemical poses a clear health risk, but the EPA has sufficient health and safety data for only about 200 of the 84,000 chemicals in commerce in the United States.  The hurdles are so high that the agency has been unable to ban asbestos, widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen and barred in more than 30 countries.

Is it really a worthwhile action, or will the PBDE’s just be replaced with other toxic chemicals?

Yes, considering a recent study found that 80% of polyurethane foam found in baby gear tested positive for toxic flame retardants.  It’s worthwhile not only because the consumers demand it, but because other manufacturers will have to respond too.  We benefit all the way around when they have to compete for our dollars, our votes.  And even though it’s not the complete solution (we all know that there are plenty of other toxic chemicals yet to contend with) it is a step toward our end goal of reducing overall exposure.  We have to start somewhere – making progress where possible – picking out the most obvious offenders and removing them first.

And yes, there will probably be other toxic substitutions made in some situations, as in the case of Chlorinated Flame Retardants (CFR’s) which have begun to appear in furniture foam and electronics after some restrictions were placed on the use of PBDE’s previously.  CFR’s are also of concern with links to cancer-causing and endocrine disrupting properties, so they’re not the perfect replacement.  Although we must stay knowledgeable about the substitutions being made, we also have to realize that this situation can’t be remedied overnight.

When a retail giant like Wal-mart draws a line in the sand, it spurs all manufacturers to work harder to find safer flame retardants.  And finally, awareness increases too, extending new information to those who didn’t even know they should be concerned.

In the end, I believe it’s a win-win.  But that’s just my two cents.  What about you?  Have you found safer alternatives? If so, help others save time by sharing your experience!

>>You can learn more in our Toxic Flame Retardant series.

Photo credit: Flickr by jamesgh5

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