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Wal-Mart bypasses federal regulators to ban controversial flame retardant

"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."

Researchers say PBDEs easily leach out of household products, ending up in dust, air, food and, eventually, human bodies. Levels of the chemicals in the environment have dramatically increased over the past 20 years, as have levels in human blood and breast milk samples, according to federal researchers.

Federal studies have shown that nearly all Americans carry the chemicals in their bodies, and young children show higher levels. A 2010 study found that children born with higher concentrations of PBDEs scored lower on tests of mental and physical development between the ages of 1 and 6.

The 'Pig Pen' effect

"Every time you sit on the couch there's a little 'Pig Pen' effect, a little poof," said Kathy Curtis of the Environmental Health Fund. "You adjust your computer screen and a little bit comes off, and you pick up the sandwich and take a bite and now it's in your body. This stuff is everywhere."

Some manufacturers have redesigned products to avoid the need for chemical flame retardants, Curtis said. For instance, some mattresses are encased in Kevlar, so that a flame would be extinguished before it reaches the flammable cotton of the mattress, she said. Others are choosing alternative chemicals, but those might also carry some health risks, Curtis said.

The only way a consumer can tell whether a product contains PBDEs is to ask the manufacturer, consumer advocates say.

About a dozen states have banned two of the three types of PBDEs used in consumer goods, known as "octa" and "penta." Four states have also banned the third form, known as "deca," which is the most prevalent.

The U.S. companies that make the chemicals have either stopped producing them or agreed to phase them out by next year, but there is no federal ban on their presence in consumer products, including the imported goods that are ubiquitous on store shelves.

The American Chemistry Council has been helping Wal-Mart design tests for the presence of PBDEs, said Kathryn St. John, a spokeswoman for the trade group.

"We recognize the challenges that Wal-Mart faces in managing a complex, global supply chain," said Mike Walls, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the council, adding, "Industry is committed to producing flame retardants that save lives and meet fire-safety standards for evolving consumer products."

The council has defended the safety of PBDEs in the past, saying in 2008 that the chemicals were safe to use in baby furniture.

In the absence of federal action, state legislatures have been enacting bans on controversial chemicals, creating a patchwork of restrictions and a regulatory challenge for companies.

Several members of Congress have been pushing to reform chemical laws to make it significantly easier for the EPA to restrict or ban chemicals that are known hazards.

But retail regulation may prove a faster route, observers say.

"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."

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