by Richard M. Goodman

A recent blog post on GreenBiz.com cites two major areas of concern related to household chemicals: the flammability of textiles and toxicity to infants.  We don’t want our furniture coverings and clothes to feed the flames in a house fire.  Of course, we don’t want infants to ingest or come into contact with materials toxic to their delicate systems.

When regulators recognized that fire retardant chemicals could greatly mitigate the flammability of textiles, many jurisdictions passed laws mandating their use. The two most common flame retardants are PBDE (poly brominated diphenyl ethers) and TRIS (tris [1,3-dichloro-2-propyl] phosphate). In lab tests and in actual house fires, they both offer retardant effects on fire spreading, but not necessarily on fire ignition. However, in toxicity testing, both materials came under scrutiny. For example, PDBE decreased thyroid hormone levels with dramatic effects such as lowered fertility and altered fetal neurodevelopment. TRIS may cause harm for both fetuses in utero and infants.

Do we look for new retardant compounds, direct pregnant women and new mothers to restrict contact with flame retardant textiles for themselves and their infants or simply increase the risk of fire spreading by doing away with the whole concept of flame retardants? My take is to evaluate the health risks (one in a million chance of harm or one in ten risk of harm) and the relative probability of a house fire.  It may be both risks are fairly unlikely, in which case the decision is a difficult one and there may be no right answer.

In another vein, we have to weigh the importance of new materials to make our lives dramatically more convenient: container liners that preserve our foods, for example, or exotic materials that provide for the spectacular performance of smart phones and other mobile devices. The main example I want to focus on is BPA (Bisphenol A).  It is the most common material used to manufacture hard plastic containers and to line aluminum cans to prevent contact between foods and the metal surface, insuring long shelf life and minimizing metal contamination.

In recent testing, the FDA reported a minimal concern for the effects of PBA on the mammary gland, possibly leading to early age puberty for young females and negligible concern for all others.  However, they expressed some concern for effects on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and children at high levels of exposure. These contradictory findings led to the recommendation to conduct additional research.

What should we do? Prudence would dictate that contacts expressly for infants, such as in baby food containers, should avoid BPA containing cans or bottles. However, overreacting to their continued use in other circumstances would be unwise.  My view is that minimal safety risks should not lead to extreme solutions, such as the elimination of BPA use until proven safe and effective substitutes are available.

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  The periodic column considers aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at www.chemconsult.org

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