Flame retardant chemicals are used in commercial and consumer products to meet flammability standards. Not all flame-retardants present the same concerns, but the following types are very toxic:
- Halogenated flame-retardants (also known as organohalogen flame retardants) containing chlorine or bromine bonded to carbon.
- Organophosphorous flame-retardants containing phosphorous bonded to carbon.
These two types of flame-retardants are associated with health and environmental concerns. None have adequately been tested for human safety and they provide questionable fire safety benefits as they are used in some consumer and building products like electronics, building insulation, polyurethane foam, and some wire and cable.
Organohalogen and organophosphorous flame-retardants often have one or more of the following properties of concern. Chemicals with all these properties are considered Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and present significant risks to human health and environment.
The Stockholm Convention is a global treaty of over 150 countries which aims to eliminate or reduce the release of POPs. The Convention has listed 22 chemicals to be banned globally, all of which are organohalogens, and several of which are organohalogen flame-retardants or their by-products.
PBDEs, used primarily as flame-retardants in furniture, are structurally similar to the known human toxicants PBBs, PCBs, dioxins, and furans. In addition to having similar mechanisms of toxicity in animal studies, they also bio-accumulate in both humans and animals and persist in the environment. The Stockholm Convention has banned all 5 of these chemicals.
Today, other flame-retardants—also made with bromine and also identified as persistent, bioaccumulative toxins—are in the news. Concerns about polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) emerged in 1999, when Swedish researchers reported that levels of these chemicals in human breast milk had increased 60-fold between 1972 and 1997. Follow-up studies in the San Francisco Bay Area found PBDE levels in breast milk that were six to ten times higher than levels in Sweden. At the same time, laboratory studies suggested that the health effects might be similar to those of PCBs—ranging from interference with brain development to altered hormone function and cancer.
The manufacturers and industry associations representing these flame-retardants tell us that the chemicals are safe, but weren’t they saying the same thing about PCBs and PBBs three decades ago? Meanwhile, we’re using orders of magnitude more brominated flame-retardants today than we were when PBBs were banned.
More than 175 flame retardant compounds are currently on the market, and the industry is worth over $600 million dollars per year in the U.S. and nearly $2 billion worldwide, according to the European Flame Retardants Association.
Flame-retardants are far more common than most of us realize. Many materials contain quite high levels of flame retardants: cellulose insulation is about 20% flame retardant by weight, plastic television and computer cases are often 10–20%, and polyurethane foam cushioning can be up to 30%. Some materials have very low levels of flame-retardants: polystyrene foam insulation is typically 0.5–2.0% HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) by weight. Manufacturers of products with less than 1% flame retardant might not list it on the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), since it falls below the threshold for required listing.
Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) children’s sleepwear flammability standards require that all kids’ sleepwear between size 9 months and size 14 resist an open flame for at least three seconds. If the garment fails this flammability test, it must be treated for flame resistance.
While flame retardant chemicals like chlorinated TRIS and PBDE have been phased out due to toxicity concerns, others remain, like tetrakis (hydroxymethyl) phosphonium chloride, a.k.a. “Proban” or “Securest.” This popular treatment has been linked to a variety of health effects including genetic changes, cancer promotion, and liver and nervous system damage. We have seen numerous children with unexplainable skin rashes clear by simply switching to organic clothing choices, especially in the pajama department.
Although the CPSC says that less than 1 percent of children’s sleepwear is treated for flame-resistance, parents shouldn’t interpret this as a sign that 99 percent of jammies are safe. Far from it. In many cases, this simply means the original fabric was treated prior to its conversion into sleepwear that then passed flame-resistance tests as a result. Quite the loophole!
Fire retardants are nearly impossible to avoid completely, but if you take these simple precautions you can minimize your exposure:
- Do your homework before you buy baby products.Although many baby products have been exempted from fire safety regulations that prompted companies to add chemical retardants, some manufacturers still use them. Find out before you buy and choose products that don’t contain any fire retardants.
- If you’re buying a new couch, choose one made without fire retardants.New regulations make it much easier for furniture makers to market products that have not been saturated with fire retardants, but there’s no easy way to tell which is which. Contact the manufacturer to ask if its furniture contains these chemicals.
- Planning to reupholster your couch? Replace the foam, too.If you’re planning to reupholster your couch, consider replacing the old foam. It likely contains fire retardants. Ask your upholstery shop to find retardant-free foam.
- Inspect foam cushioning for damage.Make sure cushion covers are intact since exposed foam can allow fire retardant chemicals to escape more quickly. Items such as car seats and mattress pads should always be completely encased in protective fabric.
- Use a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter.These vacuums are more efficient at trapping small particles and will likely remove more contaminants and allergens from your home. High efficiency “HEPA-filter” air cleaners may also reduce contaminants bound to small particles.
- Be careful removing old carpeting.The padding is typically made of scrap foam that contains fire retardants. Old carpet padding can break down by the time it’s exposed for replacement. Isolate the work area from the rest of your home.