Flame retardant chemicals have been linked to serious health risks, including infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, reduced IQ, behavioral problems, hormone disruptions, and cancer
Firefighters are speaking out against the use of fire retardant chemicals in everyday household products, noting that they don’t even work as expected
A coalition of medical, consumer, and worker safety groups have created a petition asking the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban all organohalogens, the most commonly used flame retardants
Common household items such as couch cushions, carpeting, mattresses, and electronics can be a source of exposure to toxic flame retardant chemicals in your day-to-day life.
Many of these chemicals have been linked to serious health risks, including infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays,1 reduced IQ and behavioral problems in children, hormone disruptions,2 and cancer.
In fact, flame retardant chemicals have been identified as one of 17 “high priority” chemical groups that should be avoided to reduce breast cancer.3,4 These chemicals are also poisoning both pets and wildlife, according to recent tests.
Yet, despite their wide-ranging health risks, they continue being used—ostensibly because they save lives in case of fire. But is the accumulated cost to human and environmental health really worth it?
More and more researchers say no, it’s not. Even firefighters are now speaking out against the use of fire retardant chemicals in everyday household products, noting that they don’t even work as expected.5
Tests show not only do they not work, but they actually release toxic fumes when they burn—toxins that may be more far more likely to kill you than the fire itself.
The featured video reveals how little we really know about flame retardant chemicals and how, contrary to most people’s belief, the government is not conducting chemical testing to make sure they’re safe before being brought to market.
Who’s Actually Looking Out for Your Health?
In 1973, the US government mandated that all children’s sleepwear had to be fire resistant. Brominated Tris was the chemical of choice—until 1977, when researchers discovered that Tris can increase cancer risk. Tris was subsequently banned from use in pajamas, but that didn’t put an end to its proliferation.
Another version of the chemical, chlorinated Tris, began being used in furniture, along with a number of other flame retardant chemicals, most if not all of which have a questionable safety profile. As noted in the featured article:6
“The gateway for this development was a 1975 California regulation known as Technical Bulletin 117. Upholstery foam is highly combustible. The California regulation required it to withstand a small flame — from a cigarette lighter, for instance, or a candle — for 12 seconds.
To pass that test, furniture makers treated naked foam with large quantities of chemical retardants. By dint of the sheer size of California’s marketplace, the 12-second flame rule effectively became the national standard.
The problem with this mandate, researchers later concluded, was that it did not reflect real life. Who takes a match directly to the foam inside a sofa cushion?
What catches fire first is the fabric encasing the foam. And when that fabric is ablaze, the flames are intense enough to overwhelm whatever retardants coat the foam. So much for any fire-deterrence benefit.”
Moreover, the chemicals do not remain inertly bonded within the foam or upholstery. They escape in the form of dust, making their way into everything from babies’ mouths to breast milk and water supplies.
One recent study7 found that every dust sample collected from American homes contained Tris phosphate (TDCIPP) and triphenyl phosphate (TPHP). Ninety-one percent of urine samples from the residents also contained metabolites of Tris phosphate, and 83 percent had metabolites of TPHP.
This echoes other tests, which have shown that an estimated 90 percent of Americans have flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies, and many have six or more types in their system.8
American mothers have levels of flame retardants in their breast milk that are about two orders of magnitude greater than in European countries where these chemicals are not permitted,9 and children have been found to have levels of flame retardants that are as much as five times higher than their mother’s.10
Needless to say, bioaccumulation can have serious health consequences over the course of a lifetime, although health problems may not be readily attributable to day-to-day chemical exposure. According to Linda S. Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences:11
Do Flame Retardants Really Prevent Fires and Save Lives?
The chemical industry insists that flame retardant chemicals save lives by slowing the onset of a fire, but where’s the real evidence for that? In 2013, I wrote about the deceptive campaigns14 that led to the proliferation of fire retardant chemicals.
According to the chemical industry, fire-retardant furniture increases your escape time 15-fold in the case of a fire. This claim came from a study using powerful, NASA-style flame retardants, which provided an extra 15 seconds of escape time. But this is not the same type of chemical used in most furniture. Tests have shown that the most widely used flame-retardant chemicals actually provide no meaningful benefit in case of a fire, while increasing the amounts of toxic chemicals in the smoke.
The primary industry front group responsible for perpetuating the myth that flame retardant chemicals save lives is “Citizens for Fire Safety.” But far from being a consumer group, it’s actually a trade association for the three largest manufacturers of flame retardant chemicals in the world, and its agenda is to maintain and increase the proliferation of flame retardants in consumer goods.
Home fires have dropped by 50 percent since the introduction of flame retardant chemicals,15 and chemical manufacturers are quick to equate this with the chemicals’ success. But home fires have likely dropped for a number of other reasons.
For starters, smoking habits have greatly changed, and far fewer people are puffing away in bed these days. Cigarettes have also received a chemical addition that makes them self-extinguishing. Smoke detectors have also become the norm in modern homes.
Toxic ‘Whack-a-Mole’ Game Played with Flame Retardants
In 2012, California lowered its fire resistance standard. A piece of furniture no longer needs to withstand an open flame, but rather a smoldering object such as a lit cigarette. This reduced the amount of chemicals needed to meet the standard. It’s even possible to find products without flame retardants.
But that doesn’t mean the hazard has been removed, because these chemicals have made their way into an ever increasing number of products. Childhood exposure is still of great concern, as flame retardant chemicals—including chlorinated Tris—have been detected in 80 percent of children’s products tested,16 including nursing pillows, baby carriers, and sleeping wedges.
Scientists are now taking a stronger stance against flame retardants as a group, noting that addressing chemicals one-by-one just prolongs the endangerment of public health indefinitely.17 To end the “whack-a-mole” game where one dangerous chemical is replaced by another untested chemical, a coalition of medical, consumer, and worker safety groups have created a petition18,19 asking the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban all organohalogens, the most commonly used flame retardants found in children’s goods, furniture, mattresses, and electronics’ casings. This class of chemicals includes:
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned in 1977 due to health concerns
- Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), phased out in 2005 once it was discovered that it was just as hazardous as the PCB’s it replaced
- Tris phosphate (TDCIPP), listed as a human carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65,20 has also been linked to heart disease, obesity, and cancer21
- Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), associated with altered hormone levels, reduced sperm concentrations, and endocrine disruption22
- Firemaster 550, which replaced PBDEs that were removed from the market,23 has since been linked to heart disease, obesity, and cancer24
Fire Fighters Take Up the Fight Against Flame Retardants
In Minnesota, fire fighters have been fighting for the passage of a bill to phase out 10 different kinds of flame retardants, highlighting the risks to their own health. The bill would ban the manufacture and wholesale distribution of treated items in Minnesota by 2017. The following year, retail sale of such items, no matter where they were manufactured, would also be banned. Six other states are reportedly also considering similar bans, and Oregon, Maine, and Vermont have already passed similar legislation.
According to the Star Tribune:25
“At a time when cancer accounts for more than half of line-of-duty firefighter deaths nationwide, the union wants Minnesota to follow the suit of three other states that have begun phasing out certain flame retardants by eventually banning their manufacture and sale in Minnesota.”
In an effort to end House leaders’ reluctance to act on the bill, fire fighters put on a demonstration, lighting furniture on fire,26 to show that treated furniture only delays the fire by a few seconds, while releasing significantly higher amounts of smoke, carbon monoxide, and cancer-causing fumes.
In a WGBH news report from last year (see video below), Dr. Susan Shaw, an environmental health scientist with the Marine Environmental Research Institute addresses some of these risks, again noting the minuscule benefit you get from living in a house surrounded by flame retardant items. She also testified before a House Committee on May 11, saying: “firefighters inhale, ingest, and absorb hundreds of toxic, carcinogenic chemicals during every phase of firefighting — suppression, knockdown/ventilation, and cleanup.”
On May 11, a compromise was reached, with the chemical industry agreeing to phase out four commonly used flame retardants. According to the Star Tribune:27
“The initial 10-chemical ban was opposed by the Chamber, the American Chemistry Council and the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, a coalition that said the proposed ban was too broad… The House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee, after hearing Monday’s [May 11, 2015] testimony, passed the modified bill, which is expected to be approved by the full House and Senate…
Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters union President Chris Parsons expressed mixed emotions about Monday’s compromise. ‘We are leaving off the list six carcinogenic flame retardants, so in that regards I’m not pleased about it,’ said Parsons, a St. Paul fire captain. ‘But does it move the conversation further, does it get us closer to our goal? Yes. In the meantime will firefighters continue to be exposed? That I’m not happy about.’”
American Chemistry Council Lied about its Lobbying Role
It’s tragic that lying industry lobbyists keep winning, forcing firefighters to compromise their health by absorbing these toxic chemicals while on the job—not to mention playing with the health of virtually every American on a daily basis as well. The chemical industry, just like the tobacco industry, has been repeatedly caught lying to keep their wares on the market, and this is no exception.
When California tried to ban flame retardants in 2007, Citizens for Fire Safety spent $22 million to defeat the measure. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has maintained that it had nothing to do with the campaign that led toxic flame retardants to be kept on the market, but that’s a lie, Grant David Gillham says. Gillham was a political consultant in charge of the industry front group Citizens for Fire Safety. In a recent interview, he admitted: “They flat out lied about it. They denied that they ever did anything with us.” Contrary to ACC statements, Gillham claims he was instructed by an ACC executive to make sure his association with the chemical industry remained secret. According to Public Integrity:28
“The council’s credibility is crucial as it currently works with a bipartisan group in the Senate to rewrite the law governing the regulation of toxic chemicals. The bill to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act passed a Senate committee recently by a vote of 15 to 5 and last week picked up 14 new senators as co-sponsors, virtually assuring it can pass the Senate.
Still, nearly every major environmental group opposes it, in part because the American Chemistry Council supports it. ‘This is an industry that lies,’ said Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. ‘I think at this point anybody would be foolish to believe them when they say they are serious about reining in the abuses that they’ve committed.’”
Citizens for Fire Safety was caught using unethical tactics in its lobbying efforts to keep flame retardants on the market, including paying $240,000 to Seattle burn surgeon David Heimbach, who gave heart-wrenching but false testimony about babies being killed in fires because flame retardants weren’t used. The infants Heimbach identified were later discovered to be completely fictional.
Pets and Wildlife Suffer Health Effects from Flame Retardant Chemicals
Humans aren’t the only ones suffering from overexposure to flame retardant chemicals. Research29 from Sweden suggests hyperthyroidism in cats may be due to exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Blood from 37 cats diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and 23 with normal thyroid function were tested. The cats with overactive thyroid all had elevated levels of PBDEs, which gets ingested when the cat licks itself.
Another study has found high levels of flame retardant chemicals in wild birds, such as hawks and falcons, brought into rehabilitation centers. According to a Vancouver news station:30
“Birds found with the highest levels of contaminants in their system were in Vancouver, but Langley had a Cooper’s hawk with the highest-ever recorded levels at 197,000 parts per billion of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (flame retardant). In 13 Cooper’s hawks examined from Greater Vancouver, the average was 1,873 parts per billion of PBDE.”
How to Reduce Your Exposure to Toxic Flame Retardants
A staggering 80,000 chemicals are used in household goods and furnishings, and few of them have been tested for safety. Listing items to avoid would be near impossible. The most comprehensive recommendation is to opt for organic or “green” alternatives no matter what product is under consideration—be it a piece of furniture, clothing, kids toys, cleaning product, or personal care item.
This is by far the easiest route, as manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use to make their products comply with safety regulations, such as fire safety regulations. Your mattress, for example, may be soaked in toxic flame retardants, but you will not find the chemicals listed on any of the labels. That said, below are some additional guidelines to consider that can help reduce your exposure to flame retardants:
- Polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses, and pillows, are likely to contain PBDEs, so inspect them carefully and replace ripped covers and/or any foam that appears to be breaking down. Also, avoid reupholstering furniture by yourself as the reupholstering process increases your risk of exposure.
If in doubt, you can have a sample of your polyurethane foam cushions tested for free by scientists at Duke University’s Superfund Research Center. This is particularly useful for items you already have around your home, as it will help you determine which harmful products need replacing.
- Older carpet padding is another major source of PBDEs, so take precautions when removing old carpet. You’ll want to isolate your work area from the rest of your house to avoid spreading it around, and use a HEPA filter vacuum to clean up.
- You probably also have older sources of the PBDEs known as Deca in your home as well, and these are so toxic they are banned in several states. Deca PBDEs can be found in electronics like TVs, cell phones, kitchen appliances, fans, toner cartridges, and more. It’s a good idea to wash your hands after handling such items, especially before eating, and at the very least be sure you don’t let infants mouth any of these items (like your TV remote control or cell phone).
- Look for organic and “green” building materials, carpeting, baby items, and upholstery, which will be free from these toxic chemicals. Furniture products filled with cotton, wool, or polyester tend to be safer than chemical-treated foam; some products also state that they are “flame-retardant free.”
- PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often.
- As you replace PBDE-containing items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, and cotton. This is particularly important for items you sit or sleep on for many hours each day.
I recommend looking for a mattress made of either 100% organic wool, which is naturally flame-resistant, 100% organic cotton or flannel, or Kevlar fibers (Stearns and Foster is one brand that sells this type of mattress). There are a number of good options on the market. I’ve also put together an assortment of wool and silk bedding, including organic cotton and wool mattresses you can choose from when it comes time to replace your mattress, pillows, and comforters with chemical-free versions.
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