Wal-Mart bypasses federal regulators to ban controversial flame retardant

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 10:13 PM

Wal-Mart is banning a controversial flame retardant found in hundreds of consumer goods, from couches to cameras to child car seats, telling its suppliers to come up with safer alternatives.

In perhaps the boldest example yet of "retail regulation," Wal-Mart is stepping ahead of federal regulators and using its muscle as the world's largest retailer to move away from a class of chemicals researchers say endanger human health and the environment.

"This really shows the market being able to move more decisively than the government," said Andy Igrejas, national campaign director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of environmental and public health groups pushing for tougher federal chemical laws.

Increasingly, retailers are barring specific chemicals from products in their stores in response to concerns from consumers and advocacy groups. In 2006, for example, Whole Foods became the first national retailer to ban bisphenol A, or BPA, from baby bottles and children's cups. Health advocates had raised questions about the safety of BPA, a widely used component in plastic that has been linked to reproductive problems, cancer and other health disorders in laboratory animals.

Two years later, Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and other chains followed suit, despite the fact that federal regulators permit the use of BPA and that the chemical industry attests to its safety.

In 2007, the parent company of Sears and Kmart announced plans to phase out polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, from products and packaging out of concern that a chemical it contains could disrupt the endocrine system in humans and cause other health effects.

Now, Wal-Mart has turned its sights on polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, a class of compounds used since 1976 as flame retardants in electronics, furniture, sporting goods, pet supplies, curtains and toys, among other things. In a recent notice to suppliers, the company said it would begin testing June 1 to make sure products do not contain PBDEs.

Studies have linked the chemicals to problems with the liver, thyroid and reproductive systems and brain development in laboratory animals.

Ban by handful of states

A spokesman for Wal-Mart said the company quietly made the decision to ban PBDEs from some products "several years ago" but just recently reminded suppliers that it would begin verification testing in June. Spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said Wal-Mart was motivated to act after a handful of states began banning PBDEs.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency cited PBDEs as "chemicals of concern" and said it intended to try to limit any new use of them. But that proposal has been stuck in bureaucratic review.

The nation's chemical laws, created 35 years ago, make it extremely difficult for the federal government to ban or restrict a chemical's use. Regulators must prove a chemical poses a clear health risk, but the EPA has sufficient health and safety data for only about 200 of the 84,000 chemicals in commerce in the United States.

The hurdles are so high that the agency has been unable to ban asbestos, widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen and barred in more than 30 countries.

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