A looming and ominous discovery affecting the major flame retardant in children’s sleepwear may be the impetus needed to get the House of Representatives moving behind the Senate-passed Toxic Substances Control Act.
The flame retardant is called IRIS (2.3-Dibromopropyl) phosphate (TDBP) — or “TRIS” for short. This substance was freely chosen by the chemical companies, without prior testing for toxicity, to reduce the chances of child deaths from burning clothes. In diminishing a safety problem, as required by law, the chemical companies created what University of California scientist Bruce Ames calls a potentially catastrophic health hazard not covered by existing law.
For more than two years, millions of children have been- going to sleep every evening in sleepwear which contains TRIS in amounts from 5 to 10 percent of the weight of the garment. An estimated 3 million pounds of TRIS is used annually by the fibers industry.
Studies in the laboratory of Dr. Ames, a pioneer in the screening of chemicals able to cause genetic damage, show TRIS has a high probability of being cancerous to humans. Two-year animal studies to determine if this is the case are nearing completion under the sponsorship of the National Cancer Institute.
Compounding this risk is the fact that this flame retardant is known to have significant activity as an anticholinesterase, a class of chemicals which cause poisoning of the nervous system. Washing sleep-wear treated with TRIS pollutes the water and therefore raises an environmental issue as well.
In an unpublished study, duPont found the chemical to have an allergic reaction on human skin. How much is rubbing off on children is not yet known. Nor can parents learn how much exposure infants are receiving when they chew on their garments. Dr. Robert Harris of the Environmental Defense Fund suggests parents can help matters a little by washing the sieepwear three times before the first use.
The manufacturers of the chemical, so far as is publicly known, did not test for the cancer-causing, genetic-damaging or birth defect hazards. As a result, the manufacturers of children’s sleepwear are quite concerned about the Ames tests and what they say about the potential for human toxicity.
Last month, over the opposition of the chemical industry led by Dow Chemical Company, the Senate passed a bill authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require pre-market testing of risky chemical substances.
The industry is girding to block the bill in the House of Representatives where the next step is largely up to Rep. Harley Staggers, D.-W.Va., chairman of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee.
There is powerful scientific support for the bill. For example, Dr. David Rail, a high official in the National Institutes of Health, states:
“Recent experience with vinyl chloride, bischlorornethyl ether, methylbutyl ketone and sulphuric acid mist indicate these compounds are not theoretical risks but known causes of illness and death. Many of these compounds are toxic to man in. relatively low concentration. Man is assaulted by these compounds alone and in combination from multiple sources. This problem constitutes possibly the major health hazard of this decade.”
In a remarkable speech last month before the National Press Club, Russell Train, EPA chief, stressed the need to end this five-year struggle to enact a toxic substances bill.
Train said: “It is time we started putting chemicals to the test, not people. It is time we gave the people of this country some reason to believe that every time they take a breath or eat or drink or touch, they are net taking theft life .into their hands.”
As Bruce Ames says, we are living in a sea of chemicals that we don’t understand.