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Toxic flame retardants: In our homes, our dust, our lives

Posted by SAFER States on Sep 22, 2011

Toxic flame retardants are found in many household products including items found in your child's nursery.

Updated October 13, 2011

Toxic flame retardants are one of the most common sources of toxicity in our homes and our lives. They are used on everything from computer casings, to furniture, to carpeting, to children's products. "The problem is, they don't stay put," says Rebecca Williams, a reporter for The Environment Report1. "They leach out of products and they get into us."

Health concerns surrounding these chemicals—including everything from cancer to thyroid issues to reproductive harm—are serious enough that many groups including fire professionals are interested in getting toxic flame retardants out of our daily lives.

From a letter2 released by the International Association of Fire Fighters:

"Many studies involving fire fighters exposed to these and other toxic gases during active fire fighting, overhaul, and long term exposure from these chemicals penetrating protective gear, have found that fire fighters have a much greater risk of contracting cancer, heart and lung disease, and other debilitating diseases. While we support the concept of flame retardant chemicals, there are [safer] alternatives."

When we talk about toxic flame retardants on Safer States, we are referring to a whole group of chemicals that are used on household products for the purposes of slowing down combustion. Unlike some chemicals (cadmium, for example), the concern isn't with a specific single chemical. Instead, we reference a group of chemicals intended for a single purpose, nearly all of which have been shown to have harmful effects on children, fire fighters, fish and wildlife.

In this post, we will be discussing a variety of flame retardants, particularly PBDE flame retardants and toxic Tris flame retardants. PBDEs are a class of flame retardants formerly used in many household products. Tris flame retardants are used in baby products, couches, car seats, and other household items. Several flame retardants have been banned or phased out in the United States, but others are still used as ingredients in every day products. You can see a more specific glossary of flame retardants at the end of this post.

Banning toxic flame retardants doesn't mean they disappear.

Even when banned or eliminated, toxic flame retardants can stick around in our environment. Many of them are considered to be persistent, bioaccumulative toxics (PBTs) which means that they build up in our systems, stick around in the environment for years and migrate broadly beyond national boundaries.

The pervasiveness of toxic flame retardants was recently illustrated in a California study that revealed high levels of flame retardants in second-trimester California women—despite the fact that some of the most harmful of the flame retardants (penta-BDE and octa-BDE) were banned in California in 2004. "Despite the ban, blood levels of flame retardant chemicals are two times higher for California residents than for people in the rest of the country," says Ami Zota, one of the study authors3. Because flame retardants are meant to be difficult to breakdown, it can take decades for levels in the environment and people to decrease, making it even more critical that they are phased out of commerce quickly.

Moms & fire professionals are in favor of banning toxic flame retardants.

Given mounting evidence of health concerns, environmental health advocates, fire professionals and many other affected groups are interested in replacing toxic flame retardants with safer alternatives. In August of this year, moms in 17 states—-from coast to coast--joined together in a "National Day of Action" to:

  1. Raise awareness about toxic flame retardants and other chemicals of concern, and
  2. To encourage their members of Congress to pass legislation in favor of toxic chemical reform.

Fire fighters and other safety personnel have emerged as strong advocates for the phase-out of toxic flame retardants in certain applications in favor of safer alternatives—many of them believe that the health threats from toxic flame retardants outweigh the arguable benefits. Fire fighters in each state where toxic flame retardant bills have been introduced have gone on record to support the restriction of flame retardants4.

Health Concerns associated with Toxic Flame Retardants

  • Researchers have found that women with high levels of PBDEs in their blood are more likely to have lower birth weights than women with low levels of PBDEs. "There is a growing body of evidence that PBDE exposure impacts human health, and not a lot of evidence that these chemicals are making our homes safer from fires," remarks UC Berkeley professor Brenda Eskenazi who led the study, "Other chemical flame retardants are replacing the old PBDEs, but more information is needed about exposure to the newer chemicals. More attention should also be given to finding non-chemical approaches to achieving fire safety."5
  • Studies have shown that even brief exposure to toxic flame retardants can affect thyroid hormone levels. The thyroid is responsible for body growth and development, and metabolism in the body—critical functions especially for developing fetuses and children. Decreases in thyroid levels at critical periods of growth can disrupt brain development.6
  • Flame retardant build-up is often demonstrated in household dust, and studies have shown that high toxic flame retardant levels in household dust are associated with high levels in the inhabitants of that home. High levels of toxic flame retardants in households have been associated with lower-quality sperm in men7, lower IQ in children8 and lowered fertility in women9.
  • Research shows that tris flame retardants are probable carcinogens. TDCPP, used many years ago in children's pajamas, was eliminated for this reason. However, TDCPP is one of the most commonly used flame retardants in other products.

Whack-A-Mole with our health: Ban one chemical and a new one pops up.

Environmental advocates who are trying to protect vulnerable populations from toxic chemicals are confronted with a tricky challenge: Flame retardants run the gamut of chemical compounds and specific combinations of chemicals.

When one toxic flame retardant is outlawed, another pops up with health effects that are harmful to children and vulnerable populations, creating a game of whack-a-mole with the chemical industry substituting the banned chemicals with the latest toxic chemical. If one chemical is banned, "The industry moves a few molecules and calls it a new product," says Kathy Curtis, the policy director of Clean New York.

Industry fear-mongering on the state level to defeat safe products bills.

The industry that wants to keep flame retardants in American products is motivated by big dollars. Flame retardants are a large chunk of the multi-billion dollar chemical industry in the United States. An article in Salon10 last year details the industry efforts against flame retardant bills. Calling their front-group "Citizens for Fire Safety," industry moves from state to state trying to defeat laws protecting children from toxic flame retardants.

In 2008, then California Assemblyman Mark Leno worked on passing a bill to ban toxic flame retardants in the state (which was defeated). When talking about industry efforts, Leno remarked "I should have expected it... This is about large quantities of money, so of course they are going to protect every inch of their turf. We were out-staffed 10 to one. They are disseminating and spreading fear every step they take, showing images of buildings going up in flames, with the implication that I wanted to set children on fire."

Bans on specific chemicals are the first step.

Several states have been successful in banning specific toxic flame retardants. Years ago, some PBDEs were outlawed in specific states. Deca-BDE was widely considered to be one of the worst PBDEs, and many states moved to ban it. Maine, Vermont, Oregon and Washington have specific bans on the books. In Washington State, the law could not go into place until safer alternatives were identified that met fire safety standards. The state successfully identified those alternatives, proving that it is possible to create household products free from certain toxic flame retardants11.

These bans, and promises of more state bans across the nation, put significant pressure on manufacturers, and in December 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) negotiated with three major manufacturers to phase out Deca-BDE throughout the United States, effectively phasing out mainstream use of Deca-BDE for certain applications throughout the U.S.

Recently, New York State passed a law banning TCEP, a toxic tris flame retardant, from products intended for use by children under three including baby toys, car seats, crib mattresses and strollers. In a recent scientific study, TCEP was found in 17% of foam baby products tested.

Update, 10/12/2011: Within a couple weeks of the original publication date of this post, the Carcinogen Identification committee of California, a scientific committee appointed by the California Governor, moved to regulate TDCPP by adding it to the Proposition 65 list of chemicals. This move means that chlorinated Tris may be listed on products in California as a chemical which is known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. (More info.)

Comprehensive bills are the secret to banning toxic flame retardants.

Bans on specific toxic flame retardants are helpful, especially when the targets are the worst-of-the-worst chemical compounds such as toxic tris and PBDEs; these specific bans often help to move the chemicals out of the population quickly and decisively.

However, the real key to banning toxic flame retardants is a comprehensive policy which identifies the worst-of-the-worst chemicals, and sets in place a plan for phase-out in favor of safer alternatives. The states have seen that using the laser-focus of an individual chemical ban hand-in-hand with sweeping comprehensive policy is the most effective way to reduce toxic exposure to adults and little ones alike.

Comprehensive bills like those passed in Maine and Washington state help to make institutional changes on a broad level in the states: they lay out a plan for the identification of toxic chemicals, create incentives for choosing safer alternatives, and often work proactively with retailers to be sure that the safest possible products are being sold there.

On the federal level, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) should be overseeing the release of these chemicals into consumer products, but it is decades-old, outdated, and does not require testing of chemicals or a "proof of safety" test for chemicals before they are used. Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 which would overhaul TSCA. The proposed bill was introduced into the U.S. Senate in April, and to date has not progressed further.

We are looking forward to the rest of the 2011-2012 legislative session when many more states will be pushing hard against these ubiquitous chemicals. While TSCA reform is still being worked out on the federal level, the states are picking up the slack by banning toxic flame retardants in more and more products. And much in the way that bisphenol-A bans are rolling across the country, we look forward to the big day when so many states are banning toxic flame retardants that a sea-change occurs on the manufacturing level for all Americans.

Toxic Flame Retardant Glossary

Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) A large class of chemicals added to materials to inhibit ignition and slow rate of combustion. PBDEs are BFRs. Some BFRs are persistent, bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), which build up in our systems, persist in the environment for years and do not respect country boundaries. In addition to the BFRs outlined in this piece, there are many others that are used in insulation, electronics and other household products.
Deca-BDE A commercial mixture of PBDEs used in plastics for electronics like laptops, televisions, and computers. Several states—Maine, Washington, Vermont and Oregon—have passed laws restricting Deca-BDE. Often called "deca."
Octa-BDE A commercial mixture of PBDEs used in plastics for electronics like laptops, televisions and computers. Octa-BDE is no longer manufactured legally or imported into the United States without first being subjected to an EPA evaluation.
PBDE Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, the technical term for a class of flame retardant chemicals.
Penta-BDE A commercial mixture of PBDEs used in polyurethane foam used for furniture cushions. Penta-BDE is no longer manufactured legally or imported into the United States without first being subjected to an EPA evaluation.
Tris The flame retardants TDCP (Tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate), TDCPP (Tri(2,3-dichloropropyl) phosphate), TCPP (Tris(1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate) and TCEP (Tris (2-chloroethyl) phosphate) that are generally referred to as "tris." They are found in baby products, furniture, and many other household items. TDCPP was banned from children's sleepwear in 1977 but is still found in many baby products12.


1Is fire safety putting us at risk? The Environment Report, 2010.
2Letter to LeRoy Wilkison from the International Association of Firefighters (pdf). January 22, 2008.
3Study finds high levels of flame retardant chemicals in california pregnant women. University of California San Francisco, August 10, 2011.
4CFC SB 772 fact sheet: Toxic flame retardants and fire safety alternatives. Consumer Federation of California.
5Flame retardants linked to lower birthweight babies. UC Berkeley News Center, August 30, 2011.
6Thyroid hormone understanding branches out: Insights into PBDE impacts on brain development. Environmental Health Perspectives, February 1, 2011. Disruption of Thyroid hormone receptor–mediated transcription and thyroid hormone–induced Purkinje Cell dendrite arborization by polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Environmental Health Perspectives, February 2011.
7House dust concentrations of organophosphate flame retardants in relation to hormone levels and semen quality parameters. Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2010.
8Prenatal exposure to PBDEs and neurodevelopment. Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2010.
9PBDE concentrations in women’s serum and fecundability. Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2010.
10The poison crib: When protective chemicals harm. Salon, June 10, 2010.
11Alternatives to Deca-BDE in televisions and computers and residential upholstered furniture.State of Washington, Department of Ecology, January 2009.
12Flame Retardants TDCP and TCEP (pdf). National Resources Defense Council, July 2010.

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