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Study Links Flame Retardants In The Columbia To Household Laundry


An aerial view of the Columbia River.

An aerial view of the Columbia River.

Amelia Templeton

A study published Wednesday reveals household laundry water is washing chemical flame retardant pollution into the Northwest’s biggest waterway.

Scientists with the Washington Toxics Coalition tested household dust as well as laundry wash-water from 20 homes in the Washington cities of Longview and Vancouver. They also took samples of incoming and outgoing water from two wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the Columbia River. They detected flame retardants in all of those tests.

Their study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, concludes that flame retardants are sloughing off household products such as couches and TVs and collecting on people’s clothing, washing out in the laundry and passing through wastewater treatment plants into local waterways.

Earlier studies by government scientists have shown the presence of flame retardants in the Columbia River and wildlife who are part of the river basin’s food chain. This is the first study to connect the river’s toxic chemicals to people’s clothing.

“Toxic flame retardants are hitchhiking on our clothes and literally coming out in the wash,” said Erika Schreder, the study’s lead author and science director for the coalition. “This study demonstrates for the first time a key way that toxic flame retardants found in our homes are transported to outdoor environments.”

Schreder’s group produced the study while it pushes for a Washington state law that would ban the use of certain flame retardant chemicals in furniture and children’s products. The Washington Toxics Coalition proposed a bill imposing such a ban this year but it failed in the Senate after business and manufacturing groups opposed the coalition’s proposal.

The coalition’s study found 21 different flame retardants in household dust. It found 18 flame retardants in laundry water. Based on the levels detected, the study estimates 1 to 4 percent of the annual production of some flame retardants are leaching out of consumer products and polluting waterways. Study co-author Mark La Guardia of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science said for certain chemicals, they found the levels going into the wastewater treatment plant were the same as the levels coming out.

“Our analysis suggests that from the home laundry wastewater is the primary source of flame retardants to treatment plants, and some of them are going right through the plant to the river,” he said.

Flame retardants were among the contaminants previously detectedby U.S. Geological Survey scientists in Columbia River river water, sediment in the riverbed, osprey, large-scale suckers and salmon. Some flame retardants known as PBDEs are now banned because they were found to cause health problems in animals.

Some studies have linked certain flame retardants to cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of assessing the health risks of many flame retardants. Groups including the Washington Toxics Coalition are trying to prevent some flame retardants from being added to products such as furniture and children’s products.

“In order to get these chemicals out of our waterways and prevent ongoing pollution, we need to get them out of our homes,” Schreder said.

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