Brown University

Contested Illnesses Research Group
Brown University , Providence RI

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Flame Retardant Chemicals: Their Social Discovery as a Case Study for Emerging Contaminants

Research Summary:

Flame retardant chemicals, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), are ubiquitous in daily life, and biological and environmental accumulation will persist for years to come. High levels have been found in breast milk, household furniture, smoke inhaled by firefighters, and household dust. Although research has clearly identified that these chemicals are associated with neurological, reproductive, developmental, and other health problems, these chemicals are widely used in household products. This project will examine the social discovery of these chemicals, looking at research and action of all the parties who have contributed to knowledge and action about flame retardant chemicals, including individuals and groups in health social movements, scientists, labor unions, flame retardant manufacturers, manufacturers faced with using flame retardants, fire protection organizations, and government agencies.

This research project will focus on four primary research areas: the discovery of the dangers of these chemicals, both initially in the 1970ís and the renewed focus since 2000; why these chemicals continue to be used, in spite of their known dangers and a lack of evidence that they effectively reduce fire danger; the successes and failures of advocates for banning or regulation of flame retardant chemicals; and how flame retardant chemicals serve as a case study for how scientists and citizens respond to emerging contaminants. The project will include a detailed content analysis of the scientific literature; analysis of regulatory documents and public testimony; a field analysis that identifies the relationships between individuals, organizations, and agencies active in the flame retardant debate; observation of scientific projects, community meetings, and public hearings; and interviews with scientists, physicians, firefighters and other high-exposure occupations, activists, corporations that produce flame retardants and others that use those flame retardants in consumer products, participants in household exposure studies, and government officials.

This study of flame retardant chemicals is intellectually important because it provides an ideal case study of how citizens, scientists, corporations, and the government respond to emerging contaminants. This project will contribute to a sociological understanding of how people interact with a contaminated environment, and to the sociology of risk, providing new insights into risk assessment, risk communication, and applications of the precautionary principle. It will provide important new information about how chemical manufacturing and regulatory decisions are made. It will also expand research on social movements to include collaborations between citizens and scientists, as well as between labor and environmental activists.

This project will have a direct benefit on the communities being studied, because presentations will disseminate research findings to a variety of scientific, advocacy, governmental, and occupational groups. This project will have policy implications at global, national, and local levels. State and national governments base their regulatory decisions on science and public input, and this project highlights how science and activism are working to reshape regulatory science and policy to move towards a more precautionary approach to chemical regulation. At the most local and personal level, citizens and scientists struggle with the presence of contaminants in their daily lives. This research will help firefighters, their unions, and other labor unions to balance chemical exposures with occupational concerns, and may highlight the need for chemical manufacturers to move toward safer chemicals.

National Science Foundation