Book Review: Toxic Safety: Flame Retardants, Chemical Controversies, and Environmental Health

Toxic Safety: Flame Retardants, Chemical Controversies, and Environmental Health. Alissa Cordner, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016, 332 pp.

In Toxic Safety, sociologist Alissa Cordner takes readers into the highly contested arena of environmental health politics in United States. Cordner uses recent controversies surrounding the safety of flame retardants as an entry point for examining the complex and dynamic process of evaluating and regulating chemicals in the United States. As Cordner shows, this is a process fraught with differing scientific models, data gaps, and competing policy agendas.

At the center of Cordner’s analysis are stakeholders, ranging from environmental health activists to industry representatives, who have differing interpretations of scientific evidence and deploy different definitions of chemical risk. They also have fundamentally different interests, especially with respect to the role of the government in regulating chemicals. Based on extensive interviews and fieldwork at five different sites, including a flame retardant manufacturing company, two offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an academic laboratory, and an environmental health organization, Cordner provides readers with a rare portrait of how a diverse set of actors push their agendas while grappling with scientific uncertainties and demands for proof.

After an introductory chapter, Cordner sketches a useful history of key moments in the development of flammability standards and flame retardant chemicals. Cordner describes that as plastics and polyurethane products became increasingly common in the latter part of the 20th century, so, too, did household fires. Beginning in the 1950s, state and federal governments responded by developing new flammability standards for fabric, furniture, and other household goods, paving the way for large-scale production and use of flame-retardant chemicals. Widespread use of these chemicals, however, led to two high profile events in the 1970s that raised serious concerns about their safety. One involved the mass poisoning of cattle in Michigan, and the other children’s sleepwear that had been impregnated with brominated tris, a flame retardant subsequently revealed to be carcinogenic.

Concerns over safety mounted again in the late-1990s, when results of biomonitoring studies showed widespread human exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a newer family of flame retardant chemicals. These data, combined with emerging toxicological findings linking PBDEs to a range of health effects in animals, inspired a brisk regulatory response resulting in several state bans of two of the three types of PBDEs. By the mid-2000s, in response to mounting regulatory and public pressure, flame-retardant manufacturers announced a voluntary phase out of DecaBDE, the last of the family to be more strictly regulated. Cordner closes this chapter, with an interesting and very brief description of ongoing debates within the fire safety community about whether flame retardants actually provide improvements in fire safety. Some fire safety experts, she notes, believe the chemicals actually make building fires more hazardous due in part to the greater volume of smoke produced by flame-retardant-treated products.

This historical sketch serves as the backdrop for the remainder of Toxic Safety, which is divided up into four additional substantive chapters. In chapters three and four, Cordner offers two new concepts for analyzing how stakeholders define chemical risks and deploy science in the pursuit of policy goals: “conceptual risk formulas” and “strategic science translation.” Conceptual risk formulas are different ways of assessing chemical risks that place differing weight on the key factors used in the chemical risk assessment process. These include the toxicity of a given chemical (hazard) and the likelihood and/or extent of human exposure. Cordner argues that while stakeholders might agree on some of the most basic aspects of this process, there is wide variation in how hazard and exposure are defined, which, in turn, leads to very different understandings of risk. She outlines six different risk formulas in an easy-to-read chart that includes information on the key factors that distinguish each formula, proponents, and sites of use. This typology will be useful to those wishing to understand the basic components of the risk assessment model and key definitional differences among stakeholders.

Strategic science translation, Cordner’s next major analytic contribution in Toxic Safety, is the process whereby stakeholders interpret and communicate scientific evidence to different audiences to advance their interests and goals. According to Cordner, strategic scientific translation (SST) “allows stakeholders in environmental health arenas to bolster their arguments, strengthen their authority, and inspire change regarding a policy-relevant issue, whether their goals involve public awareness, corporate behavior, or regulation” (p. 104). Stakeholders engage in different kinds of SST, depending on their goals: selective SST, interpretive SST, and inaccurate SST. The interpretive dimension of SST is especially important in the environmental health sciences, where demands for certainty are often incredibly difficult to meet. SST can serve as a way to either highlight or downplay these uncertainties.

In chapters five and six, Cordner turns her analytic gaze to the chemical assessment process at the EPA and the tactics environmental health scientists and industry groups use to influence federal and state-level chemical policymaking. Her description of the chemical assessment processes used at the EPA provides important insights about the rather opaque world of chemical regulation. Cordner highlights the highly political nature of EPA decision-making and the constraints EPA scientists labor under. They must grapple with uncertainty, stringent criteria for assessing evidence, bureaucratic classifications, and pressure from outside stakeholders trying to influence the evaluation process.

In the last substantive chapter of the book, flame retardants reappear as more central to the narrative. Here, Cordner describes the tactics used by environmental health advocates and industry groups to influence state-level policymaking on flame retardants. In the fight to ban flame retardants, unlikely alliances have formed. Firefighters, health care workers, environmental activists, scientists, and burn victims have joined in arms to produce new scientific evidence, engage in SST, and testify before elected bodies to tell of the harms associated with flame retardants. On the other side are industry groups, who engage in similar tactics, but have very different goals and much deeper pockets. This contributes to what Cordner sees as an uneven playing field, where industry has the clear advantage.

Cordner concludes with concrete recommendations for reforming the chemical regulatory process in the United States, making the product manufacturing process safer and more accountable, and how industry might improve its credibility.

In the opening pages of Toxic Safety, Cordner poses two overarching questions that she aims to answer in the book: “How do stakeholders develop different definitions of risk and different interpretations of science, and why do these differences matter?” (p. 4). By and large, Cordner succeeds in answering these questions. However, readers interested in understanding the science stakeholders are producing and interpreting will likely be left wanting more detailed and nuanced descriptions. What analytical frameworks shape this work, how are experiments and studies conducted, and what standards are employed in different settings to evaluate data?

Nevertheless, Toxic Safety makes an important contribution to questions about how we regulate environmental chemicals and how stakeholders shape this process. The book will be of interest to a range of readers, including environmental sociologists, public health advocates, and those interested in the politics of flame retardants and environmental health. It could usefully be assigned in advanced undergraduate courses and graduate seminars that address environmental politics.

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