Department of Ecology Overrules Legislature on Flame Retardant

July 18, 2012

On Monday, the Washington Toxics Coalition announced that the Department of Ecology would begin the process to list a flame retardant known as Tris as a "chemical of high concern." They announced the decision on Twitter, writing "WE WON! is starting the process to list chlorinated Tris as a chemical of concern to kids!"

This announcement stands out for several reasons.

Who needs the legislature? The Washington Toxics Coalition and the Washington Conservation Voters tried to get Tris banned during the legislature. The legislature decided not to act on the issue. Apparently, however, the legislature is unnecessary. The Department of Ecology feels it can ban Tris despite the fact that the legislature looked at the issue and decided not to act. Ironically, Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant himself testified in favor of the bill, but has now decided going to the legislature was unnecessary.

What replaces it? Ironically, Tris is being used as a flame retardant due to actions by the Washington Toxics Coalition and the Department of Ecology. We addressed this earlier this year. Ecology pushed legislators to ban the previous flame retardant known as PBDE, admitting they didn't know what would replace it. The Washington Conservation Voters (WCV) even proclaimed "We've all been duped!" when they found out the ban they supported made the situation worse, not better. But they weren't duped, becasue they knew at the time the risk they were taking. Ecology's current director Ted Sturdevant was the agency's lobbyist at the time and testified that he knew of no safe alternatives to PBDE. Now, they are doing the very same thing, banning the current flame retardant, hoping that something else will emerge.

Testifying this year in favor of the ban, Sturdevent even said that in the process of examining chemicals, "whether or not a safer alternative is available hasn't even been a relavant question and I thik that is crazy." He didn't make this argument to say that Ecology shouldn't ban a chemical if there is no safer alternative. He felt that if a "safer" compound is available, then the current one should be banned. As we found with banning PBDE to get to Tris, that rule works both ways. Banning a compound without a known alternative creates significant risk of an even worse outcome. That, however, is the path being taken, ignoring consideration of "whether or not a safer alternative is available."

What is the risk? Scaring people about "toxic" compounds has become a well-worn technique. Witness the fear campaign regarding vaccines - a campaign that has given Washington state the lowest vaccination rate in the country and the nation's most serious outbreak of Whooping Cough. The Department of Ecology, however, needs to point to something to justify a ban. Sturdevant's letter announcing the decision says only this: "TDCPP (Tris) was recently identified as a carcinogen by an authoritative source." It does not say what that "authoritative source" is.

To be honest, I don't know if Tris is dangerous or not. The Washington Toxics Coalition says Ecology officials "have stated they believe chlorinated Tris meets the requirements and should be included on the list." That seems like the decision has been made before the process has even begun. As noted above, Sturdevant, who ordered the review, testified to have Tris banned before the legislature.

This is a common pattern in environmental policy. Agencies acting on subjective authority with preconceived notions without understanding the impacts of the decision they will make. Such an approach is not emblematic of science-based consideration. It is, however, typical of a political, feel-good approach.