Calls for tighter scrutiny of environmental toxins found in the homes of most families got a recent boost, as the country's largest health care provider pledged to ban chemical flame retardants.

Kaiser Permanente announced a week ago Tuesday that it would stop buying furniture treated with chemical flame retardants linked to cancer and brain damage in children, among other ailments.

"Our mission is the health of our patients and of our communities — and that mission includes paying attention to pollutants that can cause illness," Kathy Gerwig, vice president at Kaiser Permanente, said in a statement.

The announcement comes after families of several cancer survivors petitioned Congress last month to take action on the Chemicals in Commerce Act, which would amend the outdated Toxic Substance Control Act, or TSCA.

Industry and activists agree that the 1976 TSCA needs an overhaul. Currently the law assumes that a chemical is safe until proven toxic, and gives the FDA weak regulatory power. Of the 84,000 industrial chemicals used in everyday products found in many homes, only 200 have been tested by the FDA. Just five have been banned. But what change should look like is a matter of debate.

While reforms have a broad base of support, the Toxin Freedom Fighters, a group organized by the eco-friendly cleaning products company Seventh Generation, say that the proposed changes would do little to protect consumers.

"The proposals before Congress to 'reform' our toxic chemical laws are more about protecting the chemical industry than they are about protecting public health," Toxin Freedom Fighters said in a peition "signed by more than 120,000 Americans calling for meaningful toxic chemical reform."

Change in the air

Kaiser's announcement follows a new California law that reverses the requirement that all upholstered furniture be treated with flame retardants. Mounting evidence links flame retardants to disease, and indicates that flame retardants have minimal effects in delaying combustion. Kaiser, which is the primary health care provider in California, spends $30 million a year on furniture, and has 600 medical office buildings and 38 hospitals in eight states.

The fact that this change is being made by a health care company is especially heartening to Patrick Allard, a professor of public health at UCLA whose lab research specializes in chemical toxins.

"To me if there is one compound or family that we should ban, it would be flame retardants. To be honest, I don’t understand why it has taken so long," Allard said, adding that chemicals from flame retardants are everywhere now. "They are in every single animal that we test, they are in fetus tissue. It's everywhere."

Allard explained that the chemicals are passed through the placental barrier to unborn infants, and are in the water supply, which is how it bio-accumulates in animals up the food chain.

Bisphenol A — another chemical linked to hormone disruption in children — has received much more attention. BPA is eliminated from the body in a day or so, but is problematic because we are chronically exposed, says Allard. By contrast, flame retardants can remain in the body for a dozen years or more.


We have reached a "tipping point" with some chemicals, like flame retardants, says Allard, in terms of their "cost-benefit analysis."

"Perhaps we have way overdone it," says Joseph Graziano, professor of environmental health sciences and pharmacology and director of the Columbia University Superfund Research Program.

"If your airplane were to crash and you had a fire in the cabin, you would want your seat cushion not to catch fire right away. But we've gotten carried away — it's in every cushion in your house, and at what price? There's almost no escaping exposure because of it."

A suite of other neurotoxins — including pesticides, solvents and flame retardants often used in household items — came under fire earlier this year when researchers found that they can derail brain development in children, and cause cognitive and behavioral disorders as well as lower IQ's.

One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Philippe Grandjean, suggested that society is facing a pandemic of "chemical brain drain" as young children are increasingly exposed to brain-damaging chemicals.

Small changes

As changes take place, it's important that they are meaningful, Allard says. For example, in plastics, his specialty, Bisphenol A has been replaced with Bisphenol S — a compound with similar structure and similarly negative health effects, but it allows manufacturers to label their products "BPA-free."

"We should look at a bunch of compounds and decide this is the safest, instead of fooling the public," he says.

Kristi Marsh, a cancer survivor and mother of three, founded the blog and authored the book "Little Changes," which teaches people how to remove chemicals from their homes little by little.

She was among those who delivered the petition to Congress. "We can't protect ourselves and our families without better laws," she says. But she believes consumer-driven change and action like that taken by Kaiser are important, too.

"When large companies and hospitals move forward with these decisions, it's easier for me to create changes in my home," she says. She points to Chipotle, the Mexican food chain known for using local and hormone-free ingredients. Panera Bakery recently pledged to remove artificial ingredients from its food by 2016, and Target recently introduced its own food line free of GMO's and artificial ingredients.

"Soon, having things like flame retardants and artificial ingredients in your products will be a liability," says Marsh.