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A published statement by 145 scientists from 22 countries expresses new worries about the health effects of flame retardants used in mattresses, furniture, electronics, and other consumer products, while also questioning the chemicals’ efficacy.

The statement, published today in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal, says that brominated and chlorinated flame retardants have been found in the bodies of both humans and wildlife, linger in the environment and can travel great distances. While toxicity information is lacking, studies have linked the compounds to cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems, the scientists say, even though “their overall benefit in improving fire safety has not been proven.”

In fact, according to the statement, the chemicals, when burned, can “increase the release of carbon monoxide, toxic gases and soot which are the cause of most fire deaths and injuries.” They “leach continuously” out of finished products and accumulate in indoor air. They are present in electronic waste and, therefore, pose a particular risk in developing countries, where such waste tends to be dumped indiscriminately, the statement says.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission ordered two types of flame retardants – known as brominated tris and chlorinated tris – removed from children’s pajamas because they had been tied to cancer and genetic mutations. Three brominated compounds have been targeted for global elimination by parties to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an international treaty. But many others continue to be used in upholstered furniture, carpet padding, office equipment, home insulation, drapes, and other products.

Andy Igrejas, director of a consortium of environmental health groups called Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, called the scientists’ statement significant. “Scientists are cautious by nature, especially in saying anything that could influence public policy. It’s something we all need to take very seriously,” Igrejas said. “It’s the latest example of scientists coming to consensus that we’ve been underestimating the harm from fairly common chemicals.”

The chemical industry’s main trade group, the American Chemistry Council, did not respond to requests for comment.

Safer Chemicals Healthy Families has been pushing for reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which severely limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to require testing of new and existing chemicals and impose bans. Legislation to overhaul the law stalled in the current Congress; supporters are expected to try again next year.

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A journalist since 1978, Jim Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk...