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Opinion Built-in exposures: A toxic treadmill that we can’t get off

Dayna Nadine Scott (Osgoode Hall Law School and the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University) and Michelle Murphy (Women and Gender Studies Institute, University of Toronto) are contributors to the new report Toxic By Design: Eliminating Harmful Flame Retardant Chemicals from our Homes and Bodies.

Toxic flame retardants are so ubiquitous in our everyday environments that they've been found in the breast milk of 92 per cent of women tested. The good news is that the government has recently announced new regulations that expand the number of flame retardants that are restricted in Canada.

The trouble is that prohibiting the use, manufacture and import of the chemicals themselves is doing almost nothing to reduce our exposures to them – it's their incorporation into everyday consumer products that most threatens our health.

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The new regulations apply to PBDEs and HBCD, chemicals that the government declared to be "toxic" in 2004. In the years since then, the industry that produces them has been working hard to make sure those same chemicals are added – in huge volumes – to sofas, electronics, carpets, building materials and more. In other words, we continue to bring these toxic chemicals into our homes over a decade after the government confirmed their danger, and we will be exposed to them for decades more.

How does the industry get these toxic chemicals added to our everyday consumer products? It does so by influencing a quiet, back-room process known as "standard-setting."

In these venues, technical experts decide on a set of rules by which products will be tested before they come on the market. Flammability is one legitimate concern in this regard, and several standards exist to protect us from the risk of fire in relation to our furniture, electronics and building materials.

But flammability can be reduced in many different ways, and adding toxic chemicals to products is not even the most effective one. However, as long as no one else is looking and the industry reps are holding their own, it is the way most often chosen. Once these standards are set, they influence how all manufacturers make their products.

In California, environmental health advocates, with the help of a powerful piece of investigative journalism by the Chicago Tribune, beat back this formidable economic force to introduce a new flammability standard. The new standard ensures that furniture can come on the market without heaps of toxic chemicals being added to the foam. But in Canada these standards are still set largely without any public scrutiny.

These chronic, built-in exposures to flame retardants are disturbing because many of them have endocrine-disrupting properties. Endocrine disruptors are synthetic chemicals with structural similarities to common hormones like estrogen. As such, they mimic hormone action in the body, interfering with our metabolism and gene expression even at very low doses.

During fetal development, infancy, puberty and at other times in life when our hormone systems are especially busy, these low-dose exposures can lead to significant and irreversible health effects, including neurobehavioral and cognitive changes. The science on endocrine disruptors has advanced dramatically in the last decade, challenging the received wisdom of our regulatory assumptions that link the risk to the dose of the chemical.

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The government's failure to act swiftly on this new science and to take decisive regulatory action that would reduce our everyday exposures to these chemicals has created an environment of chronic, built-in exposures with adverse effects on both current and future generations.

We need strong regulation that bans not just the use and manufacture of these chemicals in Canada, but prohibits them in the manufactured consumer products that we bring into our homes, schools and workplaces. Further, each time the government takes action against one toxic flame retardant, the chemical industry is quick to offer alternative flame retardants that tend to be similar in structure and function, but for which possible health effects are not yet proven. We're back to square one.

A House of Commons committee is currently reviewing the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the key piece of federal legislation tasked with protecting the environment and human health from toxic chemicals. This government has promised a new era of evidence-based decision-making – if this happens, we will see a meaningful revision of CEPA that implements the precautionary principle in relation to endocrine disruptors, addresses built-in exposures, and ends the current substance-by-substance approach to regulating chemicals has us on a toxic treadmill that we can't get off.

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