The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission narrowly voted Sept. 20 to limit use of a group of flame retardants in plastics and other materials, saying that they see growing evidence that the chemicals are harmful.
The American Chemistry Council sharply criticized the decision to restrict organohalogens, arguing that CPSC commissioners ignored their own agency staff recommendation against taking action, and said it was "disheartening that the discussion has lacked almost any consideration of fire safety."
But the CPSC decision was praised by a coalition of health and safety groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the International Association of Fire Fighters and the Consumer Federation of America, which said that their widespread use in consumer products are a major public health concern.
Those groups submitted a formal petition in 2015 to CPSC asking it to ban the flame retardants in a series of products, including the plastic casings of electronic devices, upholstered furniture, mattresses, toys and children's products.
Officially, the five commissioners voted 3-2 to take three steps: begin a rulemaking to ban the chemicals, issue guidance to advise manufacturers not to use them and convene a federal scientific panel to advise CPSC staff as it moves ahead with a formal rulemaking.
"The CPSC sent an unequivocal message today that it will protect children, firefighters and all consumers from the known and well-documented hazards posed by organohalogen flame retardants in consumer products," said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and general counsel at Consumer Federation of America, in a statement.
Other groups in the coalition, including the Learning Disabilities Association of America, said there is scientific consensus "that even low levels of halogenated flame retardants can harm the developing brain."
But Washington-based ACC expressed "extreme disappointment" in the CPSC action, and said it flew in the face of other CPSC priorities, including the agency's many recalls of products for fire hazards.
"Not only did the three commissioners who voted in favor of the petition fail to fully consider the importance of product fire safety, they also ignored the recommendations of their scientific staff," ACC's North American Flame Retardant Alliance said in a statement.
"There is no reason CPSC commissioners should have to choose between chemical safety and fire safety, as they can have both," NAFRA said.
CPSC staff had recommended that the commission deny the petition from the health, safety and consumer groups for various reasons, including that the studies available did not support addressing all the various flame retardants as one class of chemicals.
As well, staff said use of the chemicals may be declining and questioned whether CSPC had the staff resources to develop such a far-reaching rule.
"The limited OFR toxicity and exposure data and variations in this data do not support assessing OFRs at the class level by staff to conclude that all products defined by the petitioners with OFRs are hazardous substances under the FHSA," the CPSC staff said.
But the three commissioners who supported the vote said there is a consensus among all five commissioners that the OFRs are hazardous, even if not all felt that evidence was enough to move ahead with a rulemaking.
The two "no" votes had pushed for convening the federal scientific review panel but delaying official CPSC work toward a ban.
Robert Adler, the lead commissioner pushing for CPSC to move ahead with strict restrictions, said it would be very impractical to treat the OFRs as separate chemicals, and do regulation one by one because people are exposed to a broad mix of them.
He said that while data gaps exist, he views the evidence as strongly pointing toward the chemicals as hazardous and they should be grouped as a class.
"There are certainly a number of OFRs where we have no studies to provide us with proof of harm, but years of experience confirm every time we get sufficient data to evaluate the risk of any specific OFR, we always find it to be so toxic that we start to remove it from our products," he said.
"In other words, the more evidence that accumulates, the stronger we see the case against the use of these chemicals," he said.
Adler said it could be a "multi-year project" for CPSC to develop its rule.