?A documentary aptly titled “Toxic Hot Seat” aired yesterday on HBO Channel. While I have yet to watch it, I have researched the topic (flame retardants) extensively for a feature article a while ago. They are a vile bunch of chemicals.

Just like so many other environmental toxic substances, flame retardants are so pervasive in today’s world that it comes down to this: If you are alive, you have them in your body. And if you do, then you may, at some point in your life, experience the plethora of health problems that come with them. Flame retardants accumulate in your body and unless you move to Mars, and soon, there’s no escaping building your own supply of them.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Here are some required facts about flame retardants:

  • Flame retardants are used, well, to retard the onset of a fire. Chemically speaking, these substances are called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs.) The people who come most in contact with them are firefighters of course, but more and more studies point to all of us being exposed to them because of their ubiquitous presence around us.
  • PBDEs are found in mattresses, electronics, carpets, curtains, and sadly, even in children’s pajamas. They are found in the dust you have in your home (unless you live to vacuum, which you should not because life is too short for that.)  Regardless of your vacuuming habits though, gone are the days when dust bunnies were just a sign of a bohemian lifestyle or a rushed one. Now they’re the harbingers of health problems because of the chemicals they house within their fluffiness.
  • Chemicals used as flame retardants affect the reproductive system and the brain (they affect learning, memory, behavior and cause deficits in motor skills,) and they increase the risk of various types of cancer. In short, bad news.

I’ve written about these chemicals a while ago. I said then that the ones who get it bad are children. It’s true. Due to their growing bodies and propensity to jump on couches, crawl on the floors and take in more breaths than us adults, more chemicals per body weight enter their bodies and that is a sad reality. Not only flame retardants but many others.

Though many companies do plan to phase out flame retardants in some of their products, one has to wonder about history repeating itself. Many chemicals that were phased out due to their ill effects on human health, wildlife and the environment  (think DDT, PCBs,) have yet to disappear from our surroundings. In other words, a 30-year-old ban may have prevented more chemicals from being dumped upon us, but the ones already here are here to stay for a few more decades. Present-day chemicals such as flame retardants and others such as plasticizers are no different.

Some could argue that such is the price of comfortable, practical and safe goods. “Safe” according to the industry promoting and encouraging the use of these chemicals, not safe from an unbiased, evidence-based and responsible perspective. A terrible and sad case of abusing a concept, you’d have to agree.

It should not be this way. In a considerate world, people’s health and well-being should come before money.

Flame retardants and many invisible yet powerful chemicals we all breathe and eat today should be assessed at face value and given proper consideration.

The environment changes slowly and subtly, yet the manifestations of those changes are displayed dramatically, some more than others.

  • The number of children suffering from environmental allergies as well as asthma are increasing year after year; same for asthma. There are more and more people suffering from what it’s called multiple chemical sensitivity, a disease that is somewhat controversial due to a difficulty in establishing a clear connection between symptoms and causes. While the debate goes on, some people are affected by the same environment that leaves many of us unscathed (for now.) In the meantime, more public buildings adopt a fragrance-free policy in order to reduce the effects of exposure to fragrances and similar substances that many people are sensitive to.
  • More children than ever display signs of what is slowly becoming “yesterday news,” such as hyperactivity and ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism. Again, easy to overlook if you’re not in the thick of it. Not to say that all causes of above-mentioned issues are caused by the collective chemicals that keep adding to the environmental burden, but if multiple studies point to a clear link in some cases, or a putative connection, in others, perhaps it is wise and responsible to look at it objectively and take the appropriate measures.
  • Endocrine imbalances translate in infertility and other hormone-related health issues including breast cancer, a chronic affection that was deemed environmental in many cases.
  • Cancer attacks indiscriminately nowadays and that’s both sad and scary. Cancer used to be a disease of old age, but that is no longer the case. Also, cancer used to be associated with doing this or that (fill in with various “bad for you” activities such as smoking) but nowadays living seems to be associated with a moderate to high risk of cancer. It should not be like that.

The only big problem with all of these issues is that there are no big bad monsters with clearly defined contours for us to point at. Invisible chemicals used extensively and in high amounts to the financial benefit of industrial giants are not an easy enemy to defeat. Books have been written and environmental scientists are working hard at gathering evidence that the environment suffers and we will suffer with it but somehow we are a bunch of die-hards who are playing hard to get.

The environment is changing slowly and that gives us reason to say “maybe it’s not that bad after all…” Hardly a good thing. It makes it easier for naysayers to persist in denial, and it makes it easier for many to turn a blind eye. But it also makes it difficult to make changes down the road when we’ll realize the ill effects but by then we’ll be too far in the game and, from many an industry point of view, too costly to change anything.

So what are we to do? For one, become aware of what’s around us. Documentaries, independent studies and talks by people who put human health and the environment before anything else are a great starting point in becoming aware.

Imagine a world with a motto like: Proceed if safe for humans and all forms of life on Earth and the environment.

We come into this world with nothing and we leave like that too. We are thinking, empathetic beings who know right from wrong. I choose to believe that deep down most of us are like that.

Assessing and reassessing our priorities, our needs and wants and also, taking into consideration the needs of others is a matter of maturity. From sharing a home to inhabiting the (only) planet, everyone’s actions will becomes collective consequences. Today’s actions will shape everyone’s tomorrow. I think a good tomorrow would suit everyone.

What do you think?