Used in everything from TV remote controls to mattresses, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), are flame-retardant chemicals that have been found to cause thyroid problems, contribute to hyperactivity, and affect reproductive organs and hormone systems. The air inside our homes has up to 50 times the amount of PBDE contamination as outdoor air, and babies are often exposed to the chemicals when they crawl in household dust. The United States phased out two types of PBDEs in 2005, but deca-BDEs are still legal, despite their status as a likely carcinogen. The Environmental Protection Agency cites PBDEs as "chemicals of concern," but efforts to regulate them have stalled.
This week Wal-Mart stepped out ahead of federal regulators and banned the controversial flame retardants, found in couches, cameras and child car seats, among other products, Lyndsey Layton reports in the Washington Post. The world’s largest retailer told its suppliers to come up with safer alternatives and said it would begin testing products for the chemicals' presence as of June 1.
"This really shows the market being able to move more decisively than the government," Andy Igrejas, national campaign director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, told the Post.
Wal-Mart has already joined Whole Foods and Toys R Us in banning bisphenol A, or BPA, from baby bottles and children's cups. Sears and Kmart have announced plans to phase out polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, which is suspected of disrupting human endocrine systems, from products and packaging.
"Wal-Mart has taken an important step toward protecting children and families from exposure to toxic chemicals," said Steve Owens, assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. "EPA has long had concerns about PBDEs."
"This will have both direct and indirect ripple effects," said Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. "The companies producing for Wal-Mart are not going to make a special line for them and another line with those chemicals for everyone else. And this is going to make it easier for other retailers to follow suit."
If you’re concerned about PBDEs, ask the manufacturer whether a product contains them before you bring it home.