Skip to content

 Flame retardants. All around us, and in us. So, so hard to avoid because they're in electronic goods, in upholstered furniture, polyurethane foam, carpet pads, some textiles, the foam in baby items, house dust, building insulation, and on and on. And unfortunately, while a number of toxic flame retardants have been phased out, it appears that the new replacements may be just as bad and are more easily inhaled (the small particles go down the air tract and into the lung tissue). What to do? Wash hands before eating. Try to use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. Try to avoid products that say they contain "flame retardants". Only buy upholstered furniture with tags that say they are flame retardant free. From Environmental Health News:

As Washington state decides on stronger toxics law, residents are breathing flame retardants

A new generation of chemicals added to furniture, building insulation and baby products like car seats to slow the spread of flames are escaping into air at higher levels than previously thought, according to a new study out of Washington state. The findings come as Washington lawmakers decide on bolstering flame retardant bans. The state was one of the first to ban an earlier generation of retardants, known as PBDEs.

The new research found flame retardant chemicals used to replace polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) also escape, are ubiquitous in indoor air and suggest inhalation is a major route of exposure for people. The compounds, called chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants, found in the study have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems, and some can alter hormones essential for development. “We’ve been underestimating what total exposure is,” said Erika Schreder, staff scientist at the Washington Toxics Coalition and lead author of the study published this month in the scientific journal Chemosphere.

Researchers gave 10 people from Washington state an air sampler that simulates breathing to wear during a normal day: office work, commuting, hanging out at home. They tested for a suite of the new generation of chlorinated flame retardants and found all 10 were breathing some amount of them throughout the day. Exposure to one of the most prevalent compounds was up to 30 times greater than ingesting the chemicals via dust. The distinction is important: dust exposure occurs largely through the mouth, previously thought to be the major exposure route for banned PBDEs.

Chlorinated flame retardants are used mostly in polyurethane foam, often in building insulation and everyday products such as furniture, children’s car seats and baby strollers. The compounds are substitutes for PBDEs, which were widely used as flame retardants until scientists reported they were building up in people and wildlife and various bans took hold.

While chlorinated flame retardants have been around for decades, Salamova said scientists have recently started to understand them as, at first, it was thought they weren’t harmful or able to accumulate in people and wildlife. However there is evidence the replacement are following the same path as PBDEs: chlorinated flame retardants have been found in household dust, children’s products, drinking water, and mother-toddlers pairsTwo chlorinated flame retardants have been flagged by the state of California as carcinogens, and animal research suggests they may hamper brain development as well. 

From Medical Xpress: Prenatal exposure to flame retardants linked to poorer behavioral function in children

New research from the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine suggests that prenatal exposure to flame retardants and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) commonly found in the environment may have a lasting effect on a child's cognitive and behavioral development, known as executive function...."We examined the relationship between prenatal exposure to PBDEs and PFASs and executive function in children at 5 and 8 years of age," said Ann Vuong, DrPH, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cincinnati in the Department of Environmental Health. "The findings suggest that maternal serum concentrations of PBDEs and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), one of the most commonly found PFASs in human blood, may be associated with poorer executive functioning in school-age children."

From Science Daily: Exposure to common flame retardants may contribute to attention problems in children

Prenatal exposure to some flame retardants that have been widely-used in consumer products is associated with attention problems in young children. A new study is the first to show the effects of prenatal exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers on children's development at ages 3, 4, and 7 years. Children with the highest exposure to certain PBDEs had approximately twice the number of maternally-reported attention problems compared to the other children in the study. PBDEs are found in textiles, plastics, wiring, and furniture containing polyurethane foam to reduce flammability.

Very nice and thorough report about flame retardants written in 2013 by the highly regarded center EHHI (Environment and Human Health, Inc.): FLAME RETARDANTS THE CASE FOR POLICY CHANGE

More than a year after California revised its flame retardant standards so that new furniture (the polyurethane foam in upholstered sofas, sofa beds, and chairs) does not have to use flame retardants, it is still hard to find out whether the furniture is flame retardant free. This is what I have experienced in the last few months - the store doesn't know and the manufacturer won't respond to emails. Note: the new furniture label should say TB 117-2013 , and then you still need to ask the retailer if there are flame retardants in the upholstered furniture. The new label means that the manufacturer does NOT have to use flame retardant chemicals anymore, but it does NOT mean they are chemical free. And flame retardants are still found in many baby products (car seats, bumpers, crib mattresses, strollers,nursing pillows, etc), some personal care products, and electronics. It's a buyer beware situation.

More and more research is finding health problems with flame retardants because they are "not chemically bound" to the products in which they are used - thus they escape over time. and get into us via the skin (dermal), inhalation (from dust), and ingestion (from certain foods and dust on our fingers). And because flame retardants are persistant, they bioaccumulate (they build up over time). They can be measured in our urine and blood. Evidence suggests that flame retardants may be endocrine disruptors, carcinogenic, alter hormone levels, decrease semen quality in men, thyoid disruptors, and act as developmental neurotoxicants (when developing fetus is exposed during pregnancy)  so that children have lowered IQ and more hyperactivity behaviors.

How does one know if the foam in your furniture has flame retardants in it? Duke University will test it for free if you send them a small piece of the furniture's foam. http://sites.nicholas.duke.edu/superfund/whats-in-my-foam/ I originally read about this service a few months ago in The Atlantic:

How to Test a Couch for Toxins

It began with a smell. Kerri Duntley had just bought a pair of large, cream-colored couches....As the scent continued to fill her living room, Duntley asked herself a troubling question: What was causing the couches to smell like industrial chemicals? The answers weren’t easy to find. Duntley searched in web forums and even tried contacting the couches’ manufacturer. “I called and called and called,” she said. “They just would not give me the information.” She grew frustrated and began looking for new couches. It was then that she discovered an unusual service run by a Duke University lab.

The lab’s offer was simple. First, the lab instructed, wield a pair of scissors. Grab something made with polyurethane foam—say, a mattress or the innards of a couch cushion. Cut a small chunk from the foam. Wrap the surgical work in tinfoil, ziplock seal it and mail the crime-scene-looking evidence off to Durham, North Carolina. Wait up to 45 days, the lab said, and it’ll arrive: a report detailing toxic flame retardants embedded in the foam.

Duntley complied. When the results came back, she learned that her couch sample had tested positive for two flame retardants, including one that has proven harmful in animal studies, a finding that she called heartbreaking. Her experience points to a vast gap in safety information about consumer goods. With the U.S. government’s limited power to regulate chemicals, many consumers, like Duntley, are left to piece together their own crude health-risk assessments. That fabric softener? It may smell like the Elysian Fields, but what if its unlisted ingredients cause cancer? 

Government officials , academic researchers, the chemical industry and environmentalists agree: The U.S. system of chemical regulation is broken. But while the fight over reform continues in Washington, consumers remain blind to many of the chemicals that enter their homes. Duke’s service is looking in its small way to change that. The lab—which offers anyone a free chemical analysis of polyurethane foam—has informed hundreds of Americans about their furniture’s toxicity. At the same time, the foam samples have given Duke’s team a large bank of crowdsourced research. By offering a free service to an anxious public, Duke’s scientists are gaining a clearer view of chemical manufacturing. And they’re learning just how much we don’t know about the chemicals that enter our homes.

Stapleton was part of a scientific cohort that found ingesting dust—say, getting our dusty hands on a burger—is by far our largest source of exposure to flame retardants; flame retardants aren’t chemically bound to their products, and so they attach themselves to airborne dust.

But what began in California soon became a de facto national standard, since furniture companies didn’t want to manufacture separate lines. Stapleton was interested to see how chemically saturated our furniture really is. So she and her colleagues asked families for samples of their baby products’ foam. After reviewing 101 samples from across thirteen states, Stapleton’s 2011 study reached a startling conclusion: Flame retardants accounted for about 5 percent of the products’ weight, and the chemicals were found in 80 percent of the samples.

Some of the chemicals were carcinogens. Others were from a chemical class known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which have been linked to lower IQ scores, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and thyroid disorders. The most common flame retardant among the samples was tris (1,3-dichloroisopropyl)phosphate, or TDCPP, which researchers say is likely to harm the neurological development of infants. TDCPP, in fact, was used throughout the 1970s in children’s pajamas, until critical health research led manufacturers in 1977 to stop using it. Yet the chemical had reemerged in products like strollers and baby mattresses.

The lab offered to test some of these strangers’ furniture for free. But the requests kept coming. That’s when Stapleton and her colleagues decided to expand the scope of the testing and conceived of a free service for the public. They’d test anyone’s polyurethane foam for a suite of seven common flame retardants as something of a public service, since it would be funded by a federal grant (itself funded by taxpayer dollars). The service would also aid Stapleton’s research, offering a valuable stream of crowdsourced data about the chemicals used in furniture.

By crowdsourcing her research, Stapleton has also uncovered a flame retardant that academic literature has yet to identify. The flame retardant is a chlorinated organophosphate, like TDCPP, and its health effects are unknown, she said. Stapleton said that this recent discovery-by-accident followed the same pattern as her research on Firemaster 550, a popular flame retardant that replaced two widespread PBDEs after they were withdrawn from the market... But emerging research has raised concerns about Firemaster 550, too. One study from Boston University and Duke researchers found that the chemical mixture may cause obesity in humans. Stapleton found the same effect in rats.