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Common fire retardants killing firefighters, UVic report says

Flame retardants routinely added to common household products are killing firefighters, putting children and pregnant women at risk and contaminating the environment while not significantly improving safety, says a new report.
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A Victoria firefighter in full protective gear. Despite advances in protection, cancer is a major killer of firefighters.

Flame retardants routinely added to common household products are killing firefighters, putting children and pregnant women at risk and contaminating the environment while not significantly improving safety, says a new report.

Raising the Alarm: The Case for Better Flame Retardant Regulation in Canada was prepared by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre for Local 730 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents firefighters at the Victoria Fire Department. It surveyed scientific literature, public health experts and legal opinions used in framing regulatory policy in the United States.

It urges immediate reform of Canada’s regulation of flame retardants and the household goods in which they are used.

The report was to be sent to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Health Minister Patty Hajdu with a request from firefighters that all recommended reforms be implemented.

Firefighters’ bloodstreams show higher levels of the chemicals and they suffer disproportionately high levels of testicular cancer, melanoma, brain cancer and esophageal cancer, the report says.

Reproductive impairment, decreased intelligence test scores in children, impaired memory, learning deficits, altered motor behaviour, hyperactivity, endocrine disruption and immune disorders are among other known health effects, American research shows.

“The scariest building a firefighter goes into isn’t on fire, it’s the building where their oncologist works,” says the Environmental Law Centre report, quoting firefighter Tom O’Connor. O’Connor, head of a California firefighters local, pointed out in 2017 that in San Francisco, female firefighters under the age of 50 had six times the U.S. average for breast cancer.

Cancer is the leading cause of occupational injury and death among Canadian firefighters. The report cites a 2018 study of a decade of B.C. workers’ compensation claims that found cancer caused more than 86 per cent of firefighters’ fatalities.

There are about 25,000 full-time firefighters in Canada and about 125,000 volunteers.

Young children also show elevated blood levels of flame retardants, the Environmental Law Centre report says. Pregnant women and unborn babies are also at higher risk. The report cites experts in pediatric and environmental health at the University of California and Columbia University.

Flame retardants leach out slowly after being added to mattresses, children’s toys, crib and bassinet fittings, carpets, drapes, furniture upholstery — foam cushions can contain a kilogram of flame retardant — consumer electronics cases, camping gear, vehicle interiors and construction materials.

During intense fires, burning items spew toxic gases, smoke and dust particles.

Some flame retardants classified ‘toxic’

There are three broad categories of flame retardants, the report says. Organohalogens bond carbon with bromine or chlorine, organophosphates bond carbon with phosphates and “mineral” retardants include boron, aluminum, nitrogen and calcium.

There are 83 types of organohalogen flame retardants in use or available for use in consumer goods identified by a research team at the University of California, Riverside, the Environmental Law Centre report says. The researchers classified 58 per cent as “toxic and should not be used,” 31 per cent “of high concern and to be avoided.” The remaining 11 per cent raised moderate concerns and the researchers said safer alternatives need to be found.

The chemicals are intended to make homes safer by delaying combustion of contents, but fires have actually been burning hotter and faster say firefighters.

Vince MacKenzie, a director with the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, observed in 2018 that, where a residential fire once took 15 minutes to reach “flash over” — the point at which temperatures in a room ignite all the combustible materials simultaneously — the time is now only three minutes.

“Fires today burn hotter and faster than ever before,” says Gord Ditchburn, president of the B.C. Professional Fire Fighter’s Association, which represents 4,000 career firefighters across the province of whom about 3,000 serve in Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria. Another 10,000 firefighters across the province are volunteers.

“I’m very concerned given the toxicity of these flame-retardant compounds,” he says. “Virtually every fire a firefighter encounters involves exposure to these flame retardants and their deathly effects on our bodies.

“To be blunt, I can stand in the shower three to four days after a house fire and still have black ooze from my pores, blow my nose and have soot come out, despite wearing all my protective gear. This s--- stays in my body for days.”

Ditchburn says the issue is national and that despite advances in protective equipment, “we are losing a firefighter on average every four days across North America.”

“These issues are just as deadly in Victoria as they are in Halifax and every community in between,” he says. “Frankly, I’m tired of attending funerals for my sisters and brothers who are dying from cancers attributed to the chemicals contained within these burning structures.”

A 2019 study by the Centre for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Research at the University of Fraser Valley says that from 2005 to mid-2018, B.C. had 31,582 fires in residences.

Flame retardant compounds have even wider impacts, the Environmental Law Centre report says. Burned at high temperatures they produce dioxins which then precipitate from smoke into the environment where they persist and bioaccumulate, climbing the food chain in more toxic intensity.

Atop the marine food chain is the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population, currently subject to more than $1 billion in protection and recovery programs by Washington state and Canada’s federal governments.

These orcas are so saturated that Canada’s leading marine mammal toxicologist, Peter Ross, called them “fireproof killer whales” in a 2006 study, the report says.

“It is astonishing that these harmful chemicals continue to be added to consumer products despite widely accepted evidence that applying flame retardants makes no practically significant difference in terms of preventing house fires or increasing fire safety,” concludes the report, prepared by an Environmental Law Centre team of law students — Harleen Randhawa, Caitlin Stockwell, Ruben Tillman — supervised by UVic law professor Calvin Sandborn.

Public exposed to chemicals on a daily basis

The study was launched after Victoria MP Murray Rankin, a former chair of the Environmental Law Centre, was approached by the Victoria Fire Fighters Association seeking better legislated protection. Rankin suggested the UVic centre research the issue.

“Unfortunately,” it reported, “scientific literature and public health bodies have identified that many common flame retardants pose serious long-term health risks to the general public — who are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis.”

“You, yourself, are being exposed right now in your own home with the silent off-gassing of the chemicals into the air,” Ditchburn says.

And Sandborn says the California state legislature concluded that flame retardants are not needed to provide fire safety.

“Fire safety can be better achieved through product design of furniture, fabric, batting etc. rather than by dousing the foam in pounds of retardant chemical,” he says.

The federal government should ban the manufacture, sale, distribution and import of household items electronics in which organohalogen flame retardants have been used including children’s products, furniture upholstery, mattresses and the plastic casings, the report says.

And flame retardants which are not organohalogen compounds should be ordered tested to prove that they don’t hurt human health, that no safer alternative exists and that their use is actually necessary.

It also urges creation of a public online registry of all flame retardants and their health risks.

The risk increases for young children from low income families, the report says, possibly because of the differences in housing stock and furniture quality available to them.

For example, the report says, low income groups more often use older household items, use them for longer and face challenges with cleaning and dust removal in older housing stock with poor ventilation and older carpeting. Good quality vacuum cleaning equipment for dust removal is often beyond a poor family’s means.

“We are calling on the federal government to follow the example of California and other U.S. jurisdictions to get dangerous and absolutely unnecessary chemicals out of mattresses, furniture and kid’s products, says Sandborn.

“Washington state has acknowledged the threat that these chemicals pose to orcas. The U.S. federal government has recognized the threat that they pose to pregnant women, fetuses and children. And it is widely recognized that the chemicals pose an unnecessary risk to firefighters — because the chemicals create highly toxic dioxins when burned,” Sandborn says.

“The science is clear and Ottawa needs to act.”