Last year, the US EPA responded to disturbing findings that toxic flame retardants known as PBDEs were building up in North Americans–northwesterners included–by coaxing the manufacturer to remove the most troublesome forms from the market.

This was a good step, as far as it went.  But this article (from Scripps-Howard News Service) highlights why it may not be enough:   the product slated to replace PBDEs may, itself, be unsafe.  The company is holding the chemical formulation of this mixture of chemicals, which it calls Firemaster 550, close to its vest.  It insists it’s safe—but it also saw no problem with PBDEs, which were quite demonstrably harmful.

This highlights the fundamental flaw of the current system for ensuring chemical safety:  we assume that compounds are innocent until proven guilty, but by the time we can prove that a compound poses a safety hazard, the damage is already done.  That’s the opposite of the way we treat pharmaceuticals, which undergo extensive and rigorous safety testing before they’re allowed into our bodies. 

Until we come up with a system for testing compounds for safety before they’re used widely in commerce, we’re going to keep running into the same problem—jumping from frying pan to frying pan, hoping the next one is cooler than the last.