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Playing With Fire: Flame Retardants Do More Harm than Good

Fighting fire with fire: what are flame retardants health effects?

Credit: Matt MacGillivray / Flickr

Many common household products, including electrical goods, furniture, carpets, upholstery and other textiles, contain flame retardants, which at elevated levels pose a severe health risk. Yet most people are unaware of flame retardants health effects.

Flame retardants are supposed to protect people by reducing the risk of household fires, but they contain known carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and other chemicals deemed unsafe. High levels of exposure to these chemicals can do more harm than good.

A recent scientific study conducted by researchers at the Silent Spring Institute revealed that Americans are exposed to flame retardants in their homes at levels that exceed those recommended by the EPA. The scientists analyzed household dust samples collected from sixteen Californian homes in 2006 and 2011 to assess the presence of forty-nine chemicals commonly used in flame retardants. Household dust is considered the primary pathway of exposure to flame retardants, with children being most susceptible.

The results of the research, published online in Environmental Science & Technology (November 28th, 2012), show that forty-four flame retardant chemicals were found in household dust of the homes tested, thirty-six of which were present in dust samples from at least half of the homes analyzed, in some cases at levels high enough to pose a health risk.

Chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants, including TCEP and TDCIPP (chlorinated Tris) — both certified carcinogens, were found in the largest concentrations. Another chemical in this group, TDBPP (brominated Tris), which was banned from use on children’s sleepwear as far back as 1977 due to the associated health risks, but was not banned from other products, was found in 75% of the homes analyzed in the 2011 study.

While flame retardants are known to pose health concerns in high concentrations, there are no laws stipulating they undergo safety tests. Only some of the chemicals in flame retardants have EPA safety guidelines, but of those listed, the researchers found five occurred at levels that exceeded the levels set by the EPA – TCEP, TDCIPP, BB 153, BDE 47, and BDE 99.

“Our study found that people are exposed to toxic flame retardants every day. These hazardous chemicals are in the air we breathe, the dust we touch and the couches we sit on. Many flame retardants raise health concerns, including cancer, hormone disruption, and harmful effects on brain development. It is troubling to see that a majority of homes have at least one flame retardant at levels beyond what the federal government says is safe. Infants and toddlers who spend much time on the floor are at higher risk for exposure,” said Dr. Robin Dodson, a scientist at the Silent Spring Institute and co-author of the paper.

Californian homes were chosen for the study, as California has strict flammability control standards. However, manufacturers of furniture and household products use flame retardants that comply with these standards in products that are sold throughout the country. Consequently, there is increasing pressure on the Californian Governor, Jerry Brown, to amend these requirements, which currently pose a health risk to US citizens all over the country.

Another study, published concurrently in the same journal, reveals the extent and range of flame retardants used in couches. The study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute clearly shows that these flame retardants not only end up in house dust, but are present at levels that pose a health risk to people.

The Silent Spring Institute undertakes scientific studies on the link between environmental factors and women’s health issues – particularly breast cancer – by assessing levels of household exposure levels to carcinogens and hormone disruptors. An assessment of household levels of PentaBDEs (PBDEs), in US homes conducted in 2003 showed that these toxins were ten times greater in US homes than European homes. PBDE is a flame retardant commonly used to impregnate foam used for manufacturing furniture. It has since been phased out of use by the US furniture industry, with the European Union, California, and some other states banning its use.

Two flame retardants that contain PentaBDE have been taken off the market due to their associated health risks, but others, including chlorinated organophosphates and HBCYD, which are considered equally toxic remain in use. HBCYD was found in every home tested, yet this chemical is prioritized by US and European regulators as it is a toxin that persists in the environment, and a hormone disruptor that can affect the nervous system, reproductive system, as well as cognitive development and functioning. Some flame retardants that have replaced the phased out PBDEs have not been adequately tested to assess any potential health risks associated with their use.

“When one toxic flame retardant is phased out, it’s being replaced by another chemical we either know is dangerous or suspect may be. It’s not comforting to swap one hazardous chemical for its evil cousin. Instead, we should test chemicals before they are allowed on the market,” said Dr. Julia Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute and co-author of the study.

A large portion of the chemicals detected are hormone disruptors – many of which can disrupt the thyroid hormone, affecting brain development and causing learning problems. Others are known to damage DNA and cause tumors in the mammary glands of animals, which raises concerns about their ability to cause breast cancer in humans.

“The potential harm from fire retardant chemicals used in furniture is very concerning. My research found that the California fire standard provides no meaningful protection against the hazard it addresses – furniture ignited by small flames. In view of the toxicity of substances put into furniture foam to meet the California standard, the rule does more harm than good,” according to Dr. Vytenis Babrauskas, an independent fire safety scientist.

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