California recently updated TB 117, in order to require fewer flame retardants in furniture. But gauging the response to California’s new mandate remains an imprecise science, since no one is tracking every manufacturer’s use of flame retardants, Stapleton said.
With elections looming and Congress divided, TSCA is unlikely to receive an overhaul this year, despite pleas from both public health advocates and the chemicals industry. Even after November’s elections, TSCA reform may remain elusive. “We’re at a period when we’re not passing any major laws in this country,” said Sarah Vogel, who directs the health program at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Reforming a major piece of environmental legislation hasn’t happened in a long time.”
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Three years ago, when I removed my new memory foam mattress from its box, I noticed an acrid smell like what Duntley described. It was something like paint thinner mixed with stale wine, and it lasted for months. I’ve wondered about that smell ever since. So I took a sample of the mattress to Stapleton’s lab. Several days later, I received my report by email and learned that my mattress didn’t have any flame retardants—or at least not the ones that Duke was looking for.
I asked Stapleton what she thought the smell may have been, and she explained that flame retardants are odorless. “What you’re smelling are VOCs,” she said, referring to volatile organic compounds, some of which are harmful gases, emitted from thousands of products, including paint strippers and photocopiers. What kind of VOC, though, she couldn’t say. I knew, like Duntley, that I’d have to spend countless hours to find the answer, if ever I could.
How are any of us supposed to make smart purchases when we’re starved for information, yet fed news about the omnipresence of dangerous chemicals? I posed the question to Brian Zikmund-Fisher, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies the way consumers make decisions about their health. He reminded me that we live in a world full of risks. But when we look at one risk in isolation, we tend to overinflate its value. “Since we can’t avoid living in a world that has lots of risk, part of the important question about how to survive is, ‘Am I worrying about the stuff that’s most useful for me to worry about?’”
Some people may opt to buy organic, pesticide-free cookies instead of an apple grown with pesticides, he explained. But that’s a poor choice. “The fruit’s probably going to win that one.” But deciding between apples and cookies is easy, at least it is for me. What about one lotion with triethanolamine and another with polysorbate 60? He agreed that sort of analysis shouldn’t be left to consumers.
“Trying to ask a consumer to be the judge of which one is better is well beyond the level of what anyone can do,” he said. Instead, consumers need government agencies or other testing agencies to help them make these sorts of decisions.