© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Issues of the Environment: State Senator Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor addressing use of toxic chemicals

Michigan State Senator Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor)
Senator Jeff Irwin
Michigan State Senator Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor)


  • The summer of 2023 has been a season of smoky skies, increased fire risk, and burn bans. But, summer just isn’t summer without camping and bonfires! Michigan saw an explosion of interest in camping during the pandemic. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) reports that interest has remained high, and reservations for campsites and lodging are up 17% since 2019. 
  • Since 1974, Michigan’s fire code has mandated that tents sold in the state are coated in flame-retardant chemicals that are now known to cause cancer, bioaccumulate in wildlife, and pollute the natural environment as the chemicals leach out of the coatings. 
  • Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) is pleased to announce his legislation, Senate Bill 262, was unanimously voted out of the Senate to make it legal to sell camping tents without harmful chemical coatings. Michigan is one of just seven states still mandating flame retardants in camping tents.  
  • A Duke University study, which took samples from 11 recreational tents, found that 10 of the tents contained flame-retardant additives that are known carcinogens. This study also took samples from the people using the tents and found that flame-retardant levels were 29 times higher after handling a tent than before, suggesting that the flame-retardant chemicals were leaching from the tents.  While flame retardants slow the spread of direct flame in controlled laboratory conditions, more recent research in realistic scenarios show little benefit. For instance, sofabeds treated with flame retardants burn somewhat more slowly than untreated sofabeds, but they produce far more toxic smoke. Researchers concluded that the chemically treated furniture would be more dangerous to a room’s occupants in an actual fire. Flame retardant chemicals’ acute and chronic toxicity are enhanced during combustion, posing a particular risk to firefighters. (Source: *directly quoted* https://senatedems.com/irwin/2023/05/23/cancer-free-camping/)
  • Flame-retardants are in thousands of consumer products, including bedding, children’s pajamas, mattresses, and children’s car seats, and the cumulative exposure can increase the lifetime risk of cancer. Removing mandates doesn’t mean that manufacturers have to stop using them, but some products (not all, and it isn’t required in Michigan) now provide warning labels. 
  • PBDEs (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers), a type of flame-retardant proven to be very harmful to human health and wildlife, was successfully banned in the early 2000’s, but it is still present in Great Lakes sediments, fish, and people living in the basin because, like PFAS, these chemicals don’t quickly break down in the environment. Research has shown that banning one or a few chemicals at a time doesn’t work because the replacements are just as harmful, if not worse. 
  • Sen. Irwin said. “You should be able to go camping in Pure Michigan without being exposed to persistent, bioaccumulative poisons. But if you look at recreational tents sold now in Michigan, many of them come with a warning label stating that they contain materials that can cause cancer. We need to update our laws.”  (Source: *directly quoted* https://senatedems.com/irwin/2023/05/23/cancer-free-camping/)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and a lot of folks are spending time outdoors and camping as we begin to wind down the summer of 2023. In fact, the number of people camping has exploded since the onset of the pandemic, and it turns out it may be harming their health. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. All tents are sold that are used for our excursions outside or coated with flame retardant chemicals that are known to cause cancer. An Ann Arbor Democrat is looking to change that. Jeff Irwin has pushed to a measure in the Michigan Senate that would allow for the sale of tents absent those coatings. And it's always good to talk with you, Senator Irwin.

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Always good to talk with you as well, David.

David Fair: Back in 1974, the Michigan fire code was updated, and, at that time, it included the mandate that all tents sold in the state be coated with these flame retardant chemicals. Now, I don't think we knew back then the environmental and public health hazards of doing so, but we've certainly learned since. And we've known for quite a while. Why do you think it's taken so long to start to seriously address this?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, another big thing has changed since the seventies when this law was written, and that is the way that these tents are made. At that time, many recreational camping tents were made out of canvas and that sort of material. Nowadays--look, I'm a big camper. I love camping, and I love camping in tents with my family--if you go out nowadays and you get in a tent and it's a modern tent, they're made out of different materials. And, you know, what was pointed out to me a couple of years ago was that if you test these new materials in flame situations and fire situations, they actually perform just as well without the flame retardant chemicals on them as they do with the flame retardant chemicals. And so, you know, when I learned that, I thought, "Okay, here's an opportunity to get one more unnecessary, toxic chemical out of our environment."

David Fair: So your Senate bill did earn unanimous approval in the state Senate. That doesn't happen with a great deal of frequency. Were you surprised by the outcome of the vote?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Yes and no. I mean, it was somewhat surprising because I was surprised to get unanimity in the Michigan Legislature. But I wasn't super surprised because, as I mentioned a second ago, this legislation is a relatively easy one, and it's right at the nexus of smarter environmental practices and less regulation. Here, we had a situation where regulations were made that are now outdated. They don't serve the purpose of protecting people from fire, and yet they still do require the application of these chemicals that studies have shown when you buy these tents and they're brand new, there's a little bit of these chemicals that are off gassing. And with all the different ways that we're engaging with toxic chemicals in our consumer products, getting ready as many of them as we can make sense. And this was just an easy one.

David Fair: So, as it stands now, Michigan is just one of seven states in the country that still has that fire retardant mandate for tents in place. Who has introduced a companion bill in the state House? And do you expect that that chamber will pass it as well?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: We had a hearing in the House, and I am hopeful that the House will pass my bill. Like I said, I think it's a relatively easy one. We had a good hearing, and I'm hopeful that the committee chair will schedule that bill for a vote this fall, and that we'll be able to get it on the governor's desk. This is something that retailers support. It's something that the fire service supports. And let me just take a moment to point out that we're not talking about large assembly tents--these bigger tents that are put up for events and those kinds of things where lots of people gather. Those are still going to have fire retardant standards as set by state law. And we're actually updating those as part of this process.

David Fair: Our Issues are the Environment conversation with state Senator Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor continues on 89 one WEMU. Now, this measure is really just the tip of the iceberg. The polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are somewhat ubiquitous. We can find them in our home furnitures, clothes and other products. And even when we find replacement chemicals and develop them, studies show they may not be any better for our health or environment when it comes to public exposure. Are you planning to pursue more of those as well?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, absolutely. You know, I have legislation already that I've introduced for many years that would ban PFAS in food packaging. I find it unnecessary and somewhat alarming that we're using these products in food packaging in ways that PFAS gets into our food. That's not necessary. You know, there's a lot of reasons that companies use these products and whatnot--on burger wrappers or, you know, French fry bags or to-go containers to try to keep food from sticking to them. But, you know, I just think we need to identify all these different ways that we can get these unnecessary toxic chemicals out of our consumer products and, therefore, out of our bodies. We're also working on polluter pay or trying to up the ante and require better cleanups on polluted sites in our state.

David Fair: We, as a society, are addicted to chemicals. We are chemical dependent in a very real way. Do we have a path forward where that is less the case?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: I think we do, and I think that there are some positive trends and some alarming trends. The alarming trend is just that, every year, new products are coming out. Thousands of new chemicals are being invented. They're not being tested appropriately on how they impact human health or how they interact with each other. And, you know, I do think that that is something that the government needs to take more action on. The good thing is that you do see more attentiveness on behalf of industry. You see more sensitivity to the long-term damage that these chemicals can cause now than maybe we had 20 years ago, 40 years ago. And so, I'm hoping that, culturally, both in our corporations and individually, we start to improve our relationship with chemicals and toxic chemicals. But my piece of it, the piece I'm really focused on, is that we need better government action. We need to have environmental cops on the beat, making sure that when environmental crimes are committed, people are held accountable because that's how you control and prevent some of the worst behaviors and some of the worst pollution that gets in people's water and it gets in people's land and, you know, causes real health problems here and there.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU, and our Issues of the Environment guest this week is state Senator Jeff Irwin from Ann Arbor. And you mentioned accountability and you earlier mentioned polluter pay. So many of these chemicals cause significant and expensive health issues, as well as tarnishing the health of the environment. And it is the taxpayer responsibility in Michigan for most of the cleanups and remediation efforts. So, when you talk new polluter pay legislation, what does that look like?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: The concepts that I've been working on very closely with Representative Morgan, who also represents Washtenaw County, we've been trying to put together some improvements that fall in basically three categories. Improvements to the transparency of the process, making sure that the regulators get more information about what is found on these sites and what is going to be done and the progress along that path, and that that information gets shared with the public. The public has a right to know what's in our water and what's in our land. Another big piece of it is improving the quality of the cleanups, making sure that we have a higher standard of cleanliness for these sites when they're left behind and that we have more tools in place for accountability when people engage in really bad actions. The regulators need tools to step in sooner and take decisive action to prevent bad actors. And then, finally, we're talking about more resources for cleaning up sites. Right now, we've got about 27,000 contaminated sites in the state that we know of. About half of those are abandoned orphan sites where the responsible party has left in one way or another. And, right now, as you pointed out, we rely on taxpayer money for much of that work. I think that we need to get the industry that deals in these chemicals and substances that are polluting our environment to be a part of paying for cleaning up these orphan sites through some sort of, you know, revenue tool. Right now, the only thing we use to clean up these sites are the unreturned bottle deposits.

David Fair: To many, the word "regulation" is just a really long, four-letter word. There are some pretty well-funded corporate and lobby resistance to polluter pay measures, but with both chambers in the governor's mansion in Democratic control, it could very well pass. Now, the last time Michigan had polluter pay laws on the books was between 1990 and 1995. State Senator Lana Pollack of Ann Arbor pushed that through back then, and they were among the strongest laws anywhere in the nation. But when Republican John Engler became governor, the laws were quickly dismantled. Even if this passes in this legislative session, new polluter pay legislation, won't it go away again whenever there's a change in political party leadership in the state?

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Well, I don't think so, because holding polluters accountable, protecting people's health, protecting our environment, not just for people today, but for future generations, are all incredibly popular. And they're incredibly popular, not just among Democrats, they're also incredibly popular among Republicans. But when you look at what voters actually think, when you're out there knocking on people's doors, people care about clean water. And so, you know, I think that if we improve these laws, we can protect them. I don't want to be naive about the point you made, which is that, in Michigan, some of the most powerful, well-heeled forces don't want better pollution control laws. They don't want more accountability for polluters because that could affect them negatively financially. But, you know, we do have Democratic majority, albeit a slim one, that makes all this possible. And also, you know, I think that we do have something else going for us, which is that there are a lot of companies out there who want to do the right thing and who want to protect the environment around them. And they don't want to have to compete against folks who are cutting corners to make a little bit of extra money. And so, you know, look, I think there are a lot of ways that we can improve this law in ways that will protect people, protect people's health, but also get support from folks who are in business and industry, who want to do the right thing and/or want to make sure that everyone's held to the same standard.

David Fair: Senator Irwin, I thank you so much for the time and sharing the information. And I know you are on my schedule for early September to talk about renewable energy, so I look forward to that conversation.

Sen. Jeff Irwin: Great! I look forward to it as well.

David Fair: State Senator Jeff Irwin is an Ann Arbor Democrat. He's pushing to severely limit our exposure to potentially cancer-causing chemicals. If you'd like more information on today's topic, you can visit our web site at your convenience. It's WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community. NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU todayto keep your community NPR station thriving.

Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Related Content
  • The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has a new director. Phil Roos was recently appointed to the position by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Roos will be charged with taking on a number of initiatives aimed at improving the quality of Michigan's air, land and water. In his first media appearance since taking charge of EGLE, Roos discussed his plans with WEMU's David Fair and Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director, Lisa Wozniak.
  • Ridesharing services, like Uber and Lyft, continue to grow in popularity. That is particularly true in college towns and urban centers like Ann Arbor. Imagine a ridesharing fleet that was entirely electric, and we can imagine tremendous environmental benefit. According to a new study by the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University, there are environmental benefits. There is also likely to be an increase in some existing pollution and public health issues. WEMU's David Fair talked with U-M Assistant Professor Parth Vaishnav about the real world application and implications of the new data.
  • PFAS contamination is occurring in the area’s only cold-water trout stream. Johnson Creek is a 3.6-mile-long tributary to the middle branch of the Rouge River, where it joins in Wayne County’s Northville Township. The Arbor Hills landfill in Washtenaw County’s Salem Township has been identified as the source of the contamination. Getting regulators to address the issue has been difficult, and that is where the grassroots citizens group, The Conservancy Initiative, comes in. David Drinan is its vice president, and he spoke with WEMU's David Fair on how the group is taking matters into its own hands.