Chemicals are everywhere. In our clothes, our carpets, our furniture. The foam cushions on most chairs and couches contain a flame retardant.
"A lot of foams are made with petroleum-based products, so they're typically highly flammable without some sort of additive to slow the spread of flame," explains Jamie Harvie.
He's executive director of the Institute for a Sustainable Future, based in Duluth. He also works for Health Care Without Harm, a group that advocates the use of healthy products in hospitals.
Harvie says chemicals from flame retardants don't just sit there on the couch. They rub off, turn into dust, and now they're showing up everywhere.
"In almost any product in your house, you can find these things," he says. "But you can also find them in fish, in polar bears, on your plants and vegetables. You can find them anywhere they've looked. It's contaminated the whole food web."
Including human breast milk. These brominated flame retardants are just one of a long list of chemicals that are raising more and more concern among scientists. When they're released into the environment, they hang around for a long time.
They accumulate in animals, including humans. And they can cause problems -- including cancer, birth defects, and hormone disruption. Researchers are finding that very small doses of some of these chemicals can hurt developing fetuses and young children.
The law that governs chemicals in the U.S. is the Toxic Substances Control Act, written more than 15 years ago. It "grandfathered in" all the chemicals that were in commercial use in 1979. There's no law requiring companies to provide data on those chemicals.
That leaves a big gap in our knowledge, according to Michael Wilson. He's a researcher at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of California Berkeley.
"About 95 or 96 percent of the chemicals in commercial circulation today, by volume, were those that were in circulation in 1979," he says. "And so we have very little information on that big body of chemicals."
Wilson recently wrote a report to the California legislature, urging the state to nudge businesses toward "green chemistry." He says many firms would choose greener products if they had the information.
"To reduce their liability," he says, "And the costs of handling hazardous materials, and their workers' compensation costs, and disposal costs, and regulatory costs, and all those costs that they incur in handling hazardous chemicals."
Wilson says some big companies -- including Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Apple -- already are trying to find cleaner raw materials to go into their products.
It's partly because of changes in Europe. The European Union recently started requiring computer makers to take back equipment when people are ready to junk it. Now the European government is considering legislation that would require companies to provide detailed information on the chemical make-up of all products, before they can be authorized for use. Not just new products, but existing products too.
Wilson says it'll give American companies a big incentive to make things that are better for the environment and human health.
"Producers are not going to want to introduce a chemical into the EU that could potentially fail to pass the authorization process," he says. "And so already they're starting to think about alternatives to carcinogenic chemicals, for example."
The American Chemistry Council and the U.S. government have been pushing for a system more like that in the U.S. They say a more flexible approach, including the possibility of voluntary actions, works fine. An example: 3M's reformulation of its stain-resistant coating Scotchgard that began in 2000. This came after some of its constituent chemicals were found in the U.S. blood supply, and in fish and animals all over the world.
Still, 3M representative Bill Nelson says some kind of restriction is likely by next year. And he says 3M is getting ready.
"We have people within 3M whose sole job is to make sure business units are in compliance with the regulations that applies to them," he says.
Nelson says it's too early to know whether it means changing more product formulas.