Environmental Justice Issue: Low-Income Communities of Color are the Most Exposed to Flame Retardants!
In researching PBDEs and flame retardants for my last post, I came across a recurring issue that I could not ignore: People of color in California are disproportionately impacted by the pervasive use of flame retardants, and have the highest exposure to toxic flame retardants nationwide!
Flame retardants are present in most furniture because the tobacco industry was forced to address fire safety, and wanted to do so without changing their product. Instead, the tobacco industry joined forces with chemical companies to “improve fire safety” by soaking household furniture in a toxic chemical stew. To add to the disgrace, the makers of flame retardants claim that flame retardants target the safety of low-income communities of color who disproportionately suffer from home fires. Instead we have seen that low-income communities of color in California have the highest exposure to flame retardants from household dust nationwide, and still suffer from higher rates of fire-related deaths.
The study that best exemplifies this inequity was conducted with California residents of Richmond, Salinas and Oakland-all predominately low-income communities of color. The study found that these communities live in homes where dust contains 5 to 10 times more PBDEs than the rest of the country, and about 200 times more than other developed countries. Dust is a primary route of exposure, especially for young children who often place their hands in their mouths and play and crawl on the floor. Similarly, research at the University of California, San Francisco, revealed that low-income pregnant women of color who are U.S. born and living in California have the highest recorded PBDE blood levels among pregnant women worldwide. They also found that African American children in California and other non-whites have higher levels of PBDEs in their blood than white children. Why the disparity?
Some attributing factors to the disproportionate impact of flame retardant exposure are:
-Older furniture. Low-income communities may get household items second-hand and cannot afford to replace them with newer, safer versions that may not be available in stores in their communities in addition to being cost-prohibitive.
• Housing Quality and Home Environment:
-Size and design of the home-building codes and regulations are not met including deteriorating infrastructure. -Ventilation system and lack of proper ventilation increases indoor air pollution.
• Physical and Social Characteristics of the Neighborhood Environment:
-Low-income communities of color have higher crime rates therefore many children cannot safely play outside and are limited to playing indoors where dust accumulates.
-Low-income communities of color are more likely to live in hazardous areas near industrial facilities.
Individual actions can be taken to reduce exposure to flame retardants. Unfortunately, many low-income communities of color cannot afford to take most of the suggestions to limiting exposure, such as buying safer couches and special vacuum filters. Washing your hands frequently is one of the most effective ways to reduce exposure, and if you cannot afford to purchase new products, this is the best alternative. Luckily, our government is beginning to respond to increasing concern about the impacts of flame retardant use.
A proposed replacement to the 1975 regulation, Technical Bulletin 117 which requires the use of flame retardants is currently under review. If the new California Flammability Standard-TB 117-2013 passes, it will improve fire safety without relying on toxic flame retardant chemicals. Technical Bulletin 117-2013 would help improve California’s public safety and eventually reduce racial and socioeconomic disparity. Unfortunately even after this law is fixed for the better, low-income communities will continue to be exposed to flame retardants in their homes, because most cannot afford to buy new furniture- nor should they be expected to “buy” their way out of the problem. This is why we need to test the safety of chemicals before they are released on to store shelves and into our bodies and into the environment. Without doing so, we have no way of knowing the effects they may have on our health and the planet. To take action urging our government to protect all families from toxic flame retardants please sign our petition!