Fueling the Fire

Environmental-science professor Greg Howard delivers a FaculTea lecture in the Biblio Cafe.

Environmental-science professor Greg Howard delivers a FaculTea lecture in the Biblio Cafe.

Just what is in that chair you’re sitting on? More than you may want to know. After all, there are approximately 100,000 chemicals currently on the market, and they're found in materials and products you use every day. How do you know if the products you buy are safe?

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Greg Howard received an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship to investigate this complex issue. He recently shared what he learned during the latest FaculTea lecture of the 2013-14 academic year.

Howard explained that his work centered on flame retardants, some of which were banned in the 1970s for use in children's pajamas but are still used today in furniture. Working within the Design for Environment branch of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he researched the scope of the issue, helped determine the safety of alternate chemicals and developed a list of recommended products that could be used as safer substitutions.

The report addressed alternatives to pentabrominated diphenyl ether, or penta, a common flame retardant no longer in use in the U.S. But, as Howard noted, the risks posed by penta remain, since it is highly persistent in the environment and builds up in the body, and furniture soaked in it remains in American homes. Complicating the issue, the burden of proof for determining a chemical's toxicity rests with the government, not the manufacturer. A chemical is legal unless or until it is determined to be hazardous, which, he stresses, is often long after it has been placed on the market.

Once a flame retardant is deemed hazardous, a substitute substance must be found. “It’s often a matter of running away from one kind of chemical because you know it’s hazardous, but not knowing what you are running toward,” Howard said. So while it’s important to find out whether a given chemical is toxic, it’s also important to retool the system that allows for that discovery and that sets resulting gears in motion.

Asked what consumers can do to minimize exposure to toxic materials, Howard recommended that they look for products that were approved by the EPA. But, he emphasized, true influence lies in legislative and policy reform.

“I think the solution is to advocate for better regulations and environmental laws,” he said. “That’s a positive action that everyone can take.”

Published November 12, 2013