Heather Stapleton Testifies on Regulation of Flame-Retardant Chemicals

July 24, 2012

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu

DURHAM, NC – Heather Stapleton, associate professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, testified yesterday at a U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works hearing on Environmental Protection Agency oversight of flame retardants and other toxic chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Stapleton is one of the nation’s leading experts on flame retardants, particularly children’s exposures to the potentially toxic chemicals they can release.

Much of her work has focused on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a class of exceptionally long-lasting chemicals widely used to reduce flammability in plastic, foam or fabric products over the last 30 years.

In her congressional testimony, Stapleton presented findings from her team’s more than 40 peer-reviewed studies on PBDEs to illustrate of why policymakers need to update TSCA, the nation’s chemical safety law, which now gives the EPA authority to call for safety testing of a proprietary flame-retardant chemical only after evidence surfaces demonstrating that it is dangerous.

That approach, Stapleton told the committee, is like issuing a tornado warning after the storm has passed through town.

PBDEs leech into the environment over time and accumulate in living organisms, where they can disrupt endocrine activity and impair thyroid function and brain development, Stapleton explained. Early exposure to PBDEs has been linked to low birth weight, lower IQ, and impaired motor and behavioral development.

“Over the past six years my research group has examined human exposure to PBDEs and other flame retardant chemicals in indoor environments. As part of this research we have analyzed several hundred samples of indoor dust, including samples from bedrooms, main living areas and car interiors,” Stapleton said.

“To date I have not found one dust sample that does not contain PBDEs,” she said. “Every home we have tested contains PBDEs, and the levels in indoor dust can vary by a factor of a million.”

Stapleton’s research has detected PBDE concentrations in a wide array of electronics and furniture; seemingly innocuous household items like dryer lint; and in the polyurethane foam padding of scores of children’s products commonly found in homes and daycare centers, including crib mattresses, car seats, sleep positioners and nursing pillows.

As new flame retardants are introduced to replace PBDEs – the last of which will be phased out in 2013 – the problem will not end, she said.

“When one chemical is phased out, another similar chemical is often used as a replacement and we know less about its potential health effects and exposure than the chemical it replaced,” she testified.  “History has shown that it often takes millions of taxpayer dollars and several decades of research on these new chemicals before we realize there is a health hazard. This committee should, in my opinion, consider how this process could be reformed.”

Stapleton’s full testimony is online at http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Files.View&FileStore_id=4edaf31e-3fb9-4099-abb8-478adec37f8f.