Chemical Sensitivities and the Highly Sensitive Entrepreneur

These excerpts from “Slow Death by Rubber Duck” by authors Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, discuss Brominated Fire Retardants (BFRs) that are currently within our homes, cars, offices, boats and planes. This is something the highly sensitive individual needs to be aware of since they are prone to experiencing and being affected by their environmental stimuli more aptly than their nonsensitive counterparts.

The tone was set in the first morning’s keynote address by Dr. Ake Bergman, an eminent professor from Stockholm University. A bespectacled and somewhat grandfatherly figure for the assembled, his presentation was vast in its sweep – he gave a retrospective on the BFR question since the 1970s – and very strong in its conclusions. He reminded everyone that warnings about the health effects of BFRs were first raised decades ago, BFR contamination is now widespread throughout the world and its finally time to ban some of the most commonly used of these compounds. pg 99

“Of the approximately 175 flame-retardant chemicals used at present, some of the most common and most controversial – are “brominated.” pg 98

“We have to get rid of the additive brominated compounds that are lipophilic (meaning those that accumulate in our fat tissues).”

The story of Tris (2,3 – dibromopropyl phosphate) or Tris-BP highlights the tight relationship between the rise of BFRs and increasingly stringent flammability regulations that governments began to adopt in the 1970s.

In 1973, for the first time, the US department of commerce set mandatory fire-resistance standards for children’s nighties and pyjamas. Up to that point kids pjs had mostly been made of soft cotton. “Dollops of Tris-BP totalling 5 percent of fabric weight were layered onto the pyjamas of about 50 million U.S. children between 1973 and 1977. pg 102

In February 1977, the EDF (Environmental Defense Fund) obtained yet more evidence from National Cancer Institute testing that it claimed Tris-BP was a “potent” cause of cancer (one hundred times more powerful than the carcinogens in cigarette smoke) and that the chemical could be absorbed by children through he skin or by “mouthing” Tris-Bp treated children’s clothing.

Not a moment too soon: A study published shortly afterwards in the journal Science actually found the chemical in the urine of children who were wearing or had worn Tris-BP-treated sleepwear. pg 102

PCBs, mentioned a few times already in this book, are familiar to many people, and with good reason. Short for Polychlorinated Biphenyls, PCBs along with the pesticide DDT, are perhaps the most infamous of environmental contaminants. Manufactured for industrial applications including plasticizers, fluids in electric capacitors an hydraulic oils, PCBs were first detected in the environment in 1996 – in the bodies of white-tailed sea eagles. Soon scientists were measuring PCB levels in unlikely places all over the world, and this family of chemicals very quickly began to exhibit, in the words of the understated Dr. Ake Bergman, “very obvious toxic effects. pg 107

PCBs remain the only chemical specifically banned by a vote of the U.S. congress (in an amendment to the U.S. toxic substances control act). PCBs are a member of a family of chemicals called Polyhalogenated POPS. Translation: They are persistent organic pollutants (POPs) containing many halogen (chlorine, bromine, fluorine or iodine) atoms. These chemicals have long half-lives in the environment and in the bodies of animals – about ten years. Other members of this chemical family include various chlorinated and brominated compounds such as PBBs (of Michigan cow fame, now phased out around the world) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) – currently among the most common flame retardants.

Persistent organic pollutants have three chemical characteristics that make them intrinsically hazardous: they are stable (persistent), they are stored in fat tissue for long periods of time (that is, they are “lipophilic”) and they have the potential to act as endocrine (or hormone) disruptors. The stability and lipohilic nature of POPs causes them to “biomagnify” up the food chain. pg 108

In short, PBDEs and PCBs are so similar that some scientists are increasingly referring to the former as “the new PCBs” but as we shall see, unlike the case with PCBs, the challenge of global PBDE contamination is a long, long way from being solved.” pg 110

In a prominent 1977 Science article about the Tris-BP controversy, Arlene Blum and Bruce Ames actually warned of the possibilty of more widespread global pollution by flame retardants. This last sentence of their article encapsulates both their impatience and the growing challenge in dealing with an avalanche of synthetic chemicals: “While waiting for the effects of the large-scale human exposure to the halogenated carcinogens – polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), vinyl chloride, storable-toxaphene, aldrin-dieldrin, DDT, trichloroethylene, dibromochloropropane, chloroform, ethylene dibromide, ketone-mirex, heptachlor-chlordane, pentachloronitrobenzene, and so forth – we might think about the avoidance of a similar situation with flame retardants. pg 111

It turns out that PBDEs leach out of the products they are put into: the squishy foam in a sofa, the padding in a mattress and the back of a TV set. They waft into the air in our houses and offices and cars and sailboats and settle to the ground as dust. pg 114

Ake Bergman presented the results of a brand new study in which eight Swedish travellers showed significantly increased PBDE levels after taking long haul flights overseas and returning home a number of days later. Aircraft, with all their upholstery and foam insulation and closed air systems, are extremely high in PBDE contamination, so perhaps under other specific conditions like this, PBDE levels can be affected relatively quickly. pg 116

Fast forward to Europe in the late 1990s in the wake of the Swedish breastmilk study. While protesting all the while that their products were safe, BSEF members started to soften their public line defending “penta” one of the three commonly used PBDEs but they retrenched around defending the other two PBDEs, “octa” and “deca.” When the European Union and California proceeded to ban penta and octa in 2003, Great Lakes Chemical announced it would voluntarily phase out these two chemicals by 2005 but ramped up its defines of deca and newer products like Firemaster 550.

Tris-BP and PBBs in the 1970s, Ethylene dibromide in the 1980s. Penta and Octa in the 1990s. Dec today. pg 121

After doing a bit of research on what these CPSC guidelines are, I discovered that most polyester in sleepwear is now infused with a few different kinds of flame retardants. It’s not painted on the surface as Tris-BP was (the CPSC calls the “treated”) but rather bonded right into the fabric. Chemicals used in this way include halogenated hydrocarbons (chlorine and bromine), inorganic flame retardants (antimony oxides) and phosphate-based compounds. pg 128