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Friday Finds: Flying High on Flame Retardants

Airplanes may contain high flame retardants levels
New research has found that commercial airliners contain high levels of flame retardants, a suite of chemicals that have been under fire lately due to concerns over health hazards, reports Environmental Health News.

Because having a plane catch fire mid-air could be disastrous, federal regulators require that all airlines pass strict fire-safety tests, hence the intense usage of flame retardants onboard the aircraft. But though chemical companies have long maintained that flame retardants are safe, several recent studies have linked them to detrimental health effects like reduced IQs and attention problems in children. Flame retardants, which are found in common household items like furniture, electronics and even baby clothes, have also been shown to build up in the body over time. And even worse, some studies suggest that flame retardants may not be all that great in slowing fires and may actually increase deadly emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.

The good news is that many scientists agree that passengers probably don’t spend enough time in the air for flame retardants to pose a health threat. (The health effects from the amount of time you spend in a home laced with these chemicals is another matter entirely.) However, airline flight attendants, pilots and other flight personnel may experience higher exposure levels than one would find in the home or an office.

While the debate over flame retardants flames on, organizations like Earthjustice are working to improve regulations for toxic chemicals like flame retardants. Both state and government regulators are also getting involved. In June, after the Chicago Tribune exposed the health risks of flame retardants and the deceptive campaigns waged to promote them, California Governor Jerry Brown announced his decision to revamp California’s flammability standard, which is responsible for the majority of furniture in this country being embedded with these toxic chemicals. The Obama administration also recently announced its intent to review the safety of 20 flame retardants amid growing safety concerns, reports the UK Guardian.

Says Earthjustice attorney, Eve Gartner, ““Whether it is a baby crib, nursing pillows or electronics, Americans deserve to know that the products they are bringing into their homes will not jeopardize the health and well-being of their families. The fact that so many everyday products we use contain toxic flame retardants that are not even effective at reducing the spread of fire highlights the fact that we desperately need to revamp our nation’s chemical safety law.”

Climate change threatens world’s coffee fix
Coffee may no longer be “good to the last drop” thanks to climate change-induced stressors like increased rainfall and hotter temperatures, reports US News & World Report. As it turns out, one of the world’s most popular types of coffee beans—the Arabica—is especially vulnerable to climate change, no big surprise given that the tree it comes from is an extremely delicate variety that requires just the right amount of sun and rain to survive. In addition, climate change is helping a coffee-killing fungus to thrive. Known as coffee leaf rust, the fungus can decrease a tree’s coffee yields and even kill off coffee-producing trees. The problem is so dire that coffee-producing countries, academics and even private enterprises like Starbucks are all frantically searching to find a cure against coffee rust and identify new climate-change resistant coffee varieties. The only problem? One of the most resistant varieties to climate change—Robusta—tastes pretty terrible, at least according to most coffee drinkers. Hot tea, anyone?

Fossil fuel industry gets annual trillion dollar handout
It’s no secret that the fossil fuel industry is heavily subsidized, but recently the International Monetary Fund added it all up and found that fossil fuel subsidies around the world amount to $1.9 trillion per year, reports Grist. As the author notes, that’s about 2.5 percent of global GDP! Around $500 billion of the money comes from direct subsidies, which are basically checks from the government to the industry, while a large chunk of the rest comes from so-called “externalities” like the impact that burning fossil fuels has on public health, road damage, and, of course, climate change-induced problems, like extreme weather.  The Exxon oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas is just one of many examples of these externalities. ProPublica reports that pipeline accidents in the U.S. have led to the deaths of 500 people and injured approximately 4,000 others since 1986.