Flame-retardant chemicals are used in many everyday objects—for example, in the foam of upholstered furnishings, carpet padding and children’s products (including car seats), as well as in electronics and building insulation—to try to prevent or slow the ignition of fires. They were first added to furniture in the 1970s to meet the unique fire safety standard established in California (called TB117), which has become the de facto U.S. standard that manufacturers tend to follow.
But in recent years there’s been increasing concern that the chemicals have adverse health effects when they migrate out of the products and into the environment and people’s bodies.
Flame retardants: unintended consequences
Several studies, including one published in Environmental Science & Technology in 2012, have found that flame retardants are ubiquitous in household dust. And, of course, dust is easily picked up on hands (and then put into the mouth), as well as inhaled. Not surprisingly then, these chemicals have been found in human tissue, blood and breast milk, particularly in North America, where use of the chemicals is high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 97 percent of Americans have flame-retardant chemicals in their blood, with levels of certain ones having risen dramatically since 1970.
Flame retardants also accumulate in soil, water, animals and the food supply (about 20 percent of our exposure is from food). As global pollutants, they have been found in the most remote of places, including tree bark in Indonesia, Nepal and Tasmania.
Studies have linked certain flame-retardant chemicals to hormone disruption and adverse reproductive effects (such as reduced fertility), neurological impairment, immune dysfunction, thyroid problems and cancer. According to research here at UC Berkeley, exposure in utero is associated with lower birth weight, lower IQ, and poorer attention and fine motor coordination.
And at least one flame retardant—chlorinated Tris, which was voluntarily removed from baby pajamas years ago but is still widely used in foam in couches and baby products, such as diaper changing pads—is considered a probable human carcinogen. Two other widely used flame retardants have been banned in many states or voluntarily phased out due to safety concerns, but manufacturers are using replacements that are thought to be similarly toxic or have unknown health effects.
An award-winning series in the Chicago Tribune brought national attention to flame retardants in furniture. The reporters called the tactics used to promote the chemicals “a decades-long campaign of deception” by the tobacco and chemical industries.
Many scientists are calling for a systematic evaluation to weigh the fire safety benefits of flame retardants against their potential health and environmental risks. Among them is Arlene Blum, Ph.D., founder of the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute and a visiting scholar in chemistry at UC Berkeley.
They question the benefit of current flammability standards for furniture and building insulation and whether the chemicals are effective in preventing or slowing fires. Moreover, they contend that if there is a fire, some flame retardants can actually increase the amount of deadly carbon monoxide and other toxic gases created. A consensus statement from 145 scientists from around the world, published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2010, concluded that flame retardants are a concern for human health and the environment.
Some good news: After years of failed attempts by legislators and environmental proponents, California’s flammability standard is now being revised under a new regulation (TB117-2013), so that flame-retardant chemicals will no longer be necessary to meet the standard.
This will dramatically reduce or even eliminate their use in many household products. Instead, smolder-resistant fabrics such as leather and some synthetics, as well as polyester fiber batting products layered between the fabric and the foam, will be enough to meet the new fire-safety standard (which is based on testing using a smoldering cigarette, no longer an open flame).
Predictably, the American Chemical Council, a trade group that has long opposed such a move, maintains that this will kill people (not to mention its profits). But according to Blum, “The new standard is a win-win for both public health and fire safety. We’ll all be healthier without harmful flame retardants in our homes and bodies—and fire safety will be increased.”
The new regulation is supposed to go into effect in January 2014 (with full compliance required by January 2015), but there will be at least a few months lag time before products that meet the revised standard start to become available. Moreover, the new regulation doesn’t address concerns about furniture and other products in current use that still contain these chemicals.
Safety steps you can take
Given the link between flame retardants and health problems, it makes sense to limit exposure when possible, especially for pregnant women and children, since fetuses and young children are the most vulnerable to the chemicals’ effects. Here are suggestions, some from the Green Science Policy Institute:
- Reduce dust in the house by cleaning with a wet mop and using a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
- Wash your hands (and children’s hands) often.
- Before buying products—especially crib mattresses, baby carriers, strollers, diaper changing pads and children’s car seats—contact the manufacturer to ask if flame-retardant chemicals were added. This will become less necessary after the new regulation takes effect and new products are made. But because the chemicals will not be prohibited outright, a few companies might continue to use them.
- Avoid products with a TB117 flammability label, since that indicates that they meet the current California standard and thus likely contain large amounts of flame-retardant chemicals. However, the lack of a TB117 label does not mean the product is flame-retardant-free. In fact, more than half of unlabeled furniture was found to contain flame retardants in a recent study.
- Starting next year, look for products labeled TB117-2013, which means that flame retardants needn’t be used for fire standard compliance—though this doesn’t guarantee that they are not there, either. When in doubt, contact the manufacturer.
- Opt for furniture and baby products made with polyester, down or wool, which are less likely to contain flame retardants.
- Don’t let children put electronic equipment in their mouths. That includes your cell phone and the TV remote. Some electronics manufacturers have pledged to phase out brominated fire retardants from their products—though this would not necessarily be an improvement if they replace them with other (chlorinated or phosphate) flame retardants.