Flame retardants prompt historic vote on Safe Chemicals Act

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"We missed it."

Those were words from the head of the Environmental Protection Agency's chemical safety division, Jim Jones, to Senators last week. He was describing how a supposedly safer flame retardant marketed as Firemaster 550—now shown to be persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic—was approved by the EPA under our broken Toxic Substances Control Act. And he was appealing for a stronger law that would enable the EPA to protect Americans from toxic chemicals.

From a stunning investigative series in the Chicago Tribune, which uncovered the devious industry tactics that propelled huge quantities of toxic flame retardant chemicals into American homes, flame retardants have emerged as the poster child for how our current system of managing chemicals is failing.

As a direct result, tomorrow morning the Safe Chemicals Act is scheduled to be voted on for the very first time, in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. It's the hopeful and historic moment we've been working toward for years.

While flame retardants aren't unique among chemicals in their toxicity, prevalence or industry maneuvering, they are grabbing attention—including the attention of lawmakers. In the last week, the Senate has held two hearings on the dangers of flame retardants. Yesterday retired San Francisco firefighter and cancer survivor Tony Stefani told lawmakers about the high incidence of breast cancer and other cancers among the city's firefighters.

"[I]t is probably too late for this generation of firefighters to be protected by a change in the current toxic flame retardant standard," said Stefani, "but the generations of firefighters to come will be forever thankful that this very important step was taken. One of the researchers of our flame retardant study made a profound statement by saying, 'You are the modern day canaries being sent into the cave.' With our rising rate of cancer this is very close to the truth. We urge the Committee to pass the Safe Chemicals Act."

As individual flame retardant chemicals have been banned, other toxic options have marched right into their places. In 1995, Firemaster 550 was presented as a safer alternative to older flame retardants like penta-BDE. But in his testimony to Senators last week, the EPA's Jones explained that Firemaster 550 "highlights the critical need for the agency to have greater evidence that new chemicals are safe prior to commercialization and to be able to take effective action after commercialization."

These public servants, who work every day to protect our health, are calling for change. We stand beside them in urging Senate committee members to pass the strongest possible version of the Safe Chemicals Act tomorrow. The bill's next step is a Senate floor vote.

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