Exposures to toxic flame retardant are an environmental justice problem.
Everyone in Canada is exposed to toxic flame retardants, however these exposures affect some people more than others. At low doses, for example, fetuses and infants are affected more than adults. In addition, the uneven distribution of these chemicals in our environments means that people who rely on hunting and fishing for food, people who live near heavy industry, and people who have lower incomes can have higher levels of flame retardants in their bodies and communities. Flame Retardants are thus an Environmental Justice issue because disproportionate burdens and effects are borne by Indigenous communities, communities of colour, and low-income communities, as well as by women and children.
The uneven burden of exposures falls along lines of race, class, Indigeneity, and age. In Canada, environmental racism concentrates harmful chemical exposures in Indigenous communities whose territories are occupied by or are proximate to extractive industries, refineries, or factories. For example, the old General Motors factory built next to Akwesasne First Nation has resulted in concentrated levels of PCBs in their environment and fish; Aamjiwnaang First Nation is exposed to the cumulative emissions of over 60 petro-chemical refineries as part of the Sarnia-Lambton industrial area; and, since the 1970s, the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation have been exposed to high levels of mercury emitted into their environment by a now closed paper mill.[i] Because persistent pollutants like PCBs and PBDEs can biomagnify in food chains, there are increased exposures for communities that rely on fishing and hunting practices. PBDEs are common and increasing in Arctic wildlife, as are another flame retardant, HBCDs. Though they may live far from urban centres, Indigenous peoples who rely on marine foods in the Arctic are at particular risk from contaminant exposure.
In the US, people with lower income levels had higher levels of flame retardant exposure; children with mothers and caregivers who have lower education levels had higher body burdens of flame retardants; and in California, Black and Hispanic children had higher body burdens than White and Asian children.[ii] Some studies have found higher levels of PBDEs in children compared to adults, possibly associated with children’s greater contact with dust.[iii] Wealthy people may be able to reduce their exposures through their consumption and construction practices, but this ability may not extend to people with more limited resources or to infants and children. Persistent flame retardants remain in the legacy of furniture and products from years past, and thus people with less income who cannot replace furniture are structurally more vulnerable to exposures, even if future products are regulated. Thus, the strategy of limiting exposures through buying habits can amplify disparities in chemical exposures across the entangled differences of race, class, gender, and geographic location.
In the case of PCBs, for example, the highest levels are associated with geographic proximity to point sources of pollution, and yet decades later PCBs are also found in all people, and can sometimes be found at higher levels among people with higher incomes. Likewise, a Canadian national study found PBDE concentrations in maternal cord plasma at higher levels in people with higher incomes (above $100,000).[iv] PBDEs are now found in the water of all the Great Lakes. Thus, disparities in exposure levels should not lead to the conclusion that the most privileged people are effectively managing their exposures. What is certain is that environmental regulations can produce and amplify disparities in exposure levels. If our regulations stay unchanged, our flawed environmental regulatory system will continue to put the burden on individuals to navigate a world of uncertain and under-monitored everyday exposures. Thus it will continue to exacerbate the inequality of exposure burdens.
The limits and failures in Canada’s current responses to toxic chemicals are not unique to flame retardants. The environmental justice problem highlighted by flame retardants requires the government to broadly re-evaluate its strategies for regulating toxic exposures, Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, and the ways it enacts its commitments to pollution prevention more broadly. It is possible to design a scheme of regulatory responses that can give Canadians confidence that when a chemical is suspected to be toxic to humans or harmful to the environment it will be banned. Such regulatory responses would prevent toxic chemicals from adding new exposures to our already burdened bodies and environments.
If the current schema, in which a chemical can be identified as toxic and yet remain as a presence in consumer products, is allowed to stand, it will create a future in which ubiquitous exposures to toxic chemicals will persist for generations.
[i] Hoover, E., Cook, K., Plain, R., Sanchez, K., Waghiyi, V., Miller, P., Dufault, R., Sislin, C., & Carpenter, D. O. (2012). Indigenous Peoples of North America: Environmental Exposures and Reproductive Justice. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120(12), 1645–1649.
[ii] Zota, A. R., Adamkiewicz, G., & Morello-Frosch, R. A. (2010). Are PBDEs an environmental equity concern? Exposure disparities by socioeconomic status. Environmental Science & Technology, 44(15), 5691–5692; Windham, G. C., Pinney, S. M., Sjodin, A., Lum, R., Jones, R. S., Needham, L. L., Biro, F. M., Hiatt, R. A. & Kushi, L. H. (2010). Body burdens of brominated flame retardants and other persistent organo-halogenated compounds and their descriptors in US girls. Environmental Research, 110(3), 251–257.
[iii] Abdallah, M. A., Harrad, S., Ibarra, C., Diamond, M., Melymuk, L., Robson, M., & Covaci, A. (2007). Hexabromocyclododecanes in indoor dust from Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Environmental Science & Technology, 42(2), 459-464; Harrad, S., Ibarra, C., Diamond, M., Melymuk, L., Robson, M., Douwes, J., Roosens, L., Dirtu, A. C., Covaci, A. (2008). Polybrominated diphenyl ethers in domestic indoor dust from Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States. Environment International, 34(2), 232-238.
[iv] Fisher, M., Arbuckle, T. E., Liang, C. L., LeBlanc, A., Gaudreau, E., Foster, W. G., Haines, D., Davis, K. & Fraser, W. D. (2016). Concentrations of persistent organic pollutants in maternal and cord blood from the maternal-infant research on environmental chemicals (MIREC) cohort study. Environmental Health, 15, 59.