The world’s largest retailer, Walmart, has decided to ban carrying products that use polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). This class of flame retardants, used since 1976, has become a controversial topic. Walmart has already told its suppliers that it would begin testing products starting on June 1, according to The Washington Post.
In recent years, there have been several concerns about the safety of this flame retardant. GreenBiz reports that PBDEs have been linked to brain development issues, reproductive problems, and other health issues. The Consumerist also adds that it may cause problems in the liver as well as the thyroid and reproductive systems. PBDEs are found in a wide variety of products, ranging from furniture and textiles to electronics and toys. They have been found to leach out of products and have been found in increasing levels in the past two decades, according to The Washington Post. Because it can be found in a multitude of fairly common products, it has been observed that nearly all Americans carry some level of PBDEs in their bodies. Furthermore, a 2010 study noted that children born with higher concentrations of PBDEs achieved lower scores on tests measuring mental and physical development between the ages of 1-6.
Although the use of PBDEs is not widely banned in the United States, two types, termed “octa” and “penta,” have been banned in about a dozen states. Four states have already banned “deca,” the most prevalent form of PBDEs. Among the states that have enforced a ban are California, Maine, and Washington. GreenBiz notes that American companies that manufacture PBDEs have already ceased or are planning to stop operations by 2012.
Walmart is not the only retailer to step ahead of federal regulators to ban products because of the chemicals that they contain. More and more retailers are stepping out to ban certain chemicals from products that they carry in response to consumer and advocacy group concerns. The Washington Post mentions Whole Foods, the first national retailer to ban bisphenol A (BPA) from baby bottles and children’s cups. This ban was enacted due to a component in plastic that was linked to reproductive problems, cancer, and other health disorders in laboratory animals. Whole Foods was later followed by Toys R Us, Walmart, and several other retailers. Similarly, the parent company of popular retailers Sears and Kmart have begun to eliminate polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from products and packaging. A chemical contained in PVC was found to possibly disrupt the human endocrine system and cause other negative health effects.
Though retailers have been willing to step to the plate, United States chemical laws render it difficult for the federal government to ban and restrict chemical use. US chemical laws, put into place 35 years ago, require that regulators must prove that the chemical poses a clear health risk to the public. Because of this difficulty, figures from The Washington Post show that the EPA currently only has sufficient health and safety data for 200 out of the 84,000 chemicals that are used in United States commerce.