Dangerous Chemicals in Your Life: Flame Retardants

In 1975, in response to a growing number of tragic house fires, California implemented Technical Bulletin 117 (California Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation), which required the use of flame retardants in furniture, bedding and children’s pajamas. Because California controls such a large sector of the market, manufacturers adopted TB 117 standards for most products and met them by adding man-made polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs) (Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry). In 1977, however, scientists discovered the retardants had been absorbed through children’s skin and were mutagens linked to cancer (Blum, A.). Although the Environmental Protection Agency banned the specific PCB in question—bromenated Tris (1,3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate (also called TDCPP)—in 1978, manufacturers have since been using a similar chemical, chlorinated Tris, as well as numerous equally questionable compounds—polybromated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), organohalogens and organophosphorous compounds—in electronics, carpets, upholstery, furniture, insulation, children’s toys and vehicle and airplane parts (Grossman, 2011, Sepember 1). Evidence is mounting that these substances accumulate in our bodies. American women have been shown to have 75 times more flame retardants in their bodies than women in Europe (Environmental Working Group). Data also show these chemicals interfere with hormones, women’s reproductive systems, baby birth weight, thyroid and metabolic function and neurological development in infants and children (Grossman, 2011, May 16). One study links exposure to flame retardants in the womb to lower IQs and greater hyperactivity in children. It warned that children who play on floors and put their hands in their mouths often at higher risk of ingestion (Maron). Researchers at Duke University recently found the flame retardant TDCIPP (a likely carcinogen) in 100% of the mothers and babies they tested (Butt, et al.). Flame retardants thought to be off the market due to health concerns continue to be used in the U.S. in cribs, mattresses, pillows, nursing pads and car seats (Stapleton, et al.). Many of these chemicals also appear to have a travel bug, freeing themselves from the foam in your couch, for example, and joining your house dust. Discarded furniture can leach flame retardants into water supplies. From these sources, flame retardants have made their ways into peanut butter, bacon, lunch meat, tree bark in Tasmania and Indonesia (Blum, D.), and in polar bears across the Arctic (Muir). burning chairs

tests showed that chairs with and without flame retardants were equally enflamed in under 4 minutes.

The worst part about this: these flame retardants don’t work. Tests have shown that flame retardants offered “no significant protection.” (Chicago Tribune, 2012). On the pro-retardant side, the American Chemistry Council contends flame retardants prevent at least 360 deaths and 740 injuries each year (2011). In most circumstances, flame retardants in a couch cushion or crib cannot withstand the intensity of a burning house. And when they burn, they release enormous amounts and nasty chemicals in smoke, leading to firefighters’ organizations calling for stricter controls (Marine and Environmental Research Institute). In addition, more than 200 environmental, health, and fire-safety experts from 30 countries signed a consensus statement urging for stronger controls of several flame retardants (DiGangi, et al.). Why Do Dangerous Flame Retardants Surround Us? Chemical flame retardant manufacturing and sales are growing each year, contributing $4 billion dollars to the global economy. In 2013, more than 2 million metric tons (4.4 million tons) of flame retardants were used worldwide (Ceresana Market Research). And The Chicago Tribune has shed light on decades-long efforts by the tobacco industry to shift focus away from the role of cigarettes in starting house fires and in favor of flame retardants (A powerful series. Read it here). We certainly wouldn’t want poisons in babies, nursing mothers, wildlife around the world, and the rest of us to get in the way of jobs and a “healthy” economy, would we? And according to critics, the main law governing nation’s chemical safety, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), is toothless and badly need of reform (Environmental Defense Fund). What can you do?
  • Wash your hands frequently. Flame retardants can easily free themselves, end up in household dust, then enter you when you touch food or put fingers in your mouth.
  • Choose air filters and vacuum cleaners with High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters.
  • Look for “TB 117” labels on your furniture and padded baby products. Phase these items out first when it’s time to buy new furnishings, because they have been treated with possible dangerous flame retardants.
  • Take care when you remove old carpet. Not only have many carpets been treated with flame retardants, but flame retardants have likely accumulated in the dust collected over the years in and under your carpet.
  • Choose baby products and household furnishings that do not have flame retardants (You may have to ask the manufacturer specifically). One way to do this is avoid foam rubber and plastics as much as possible. Not only do these petroleum products contribute to global warming, they are often the items that have flame retardants applied. If you can’t escape foam, choose foam that is retardant-free.
  • Manufacturers that provide retardant-free products include BabyBjorn, Naturepedic, and OrbitBaby.
  • Write your representatives in Congress. (http://www.contactingthecongress.org/) Urge them to support TSCA reform to remove dangerous flame retardants from your household. Check out Environmental Defense Fund's website for details about TSCA reform.

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