Flame Retardants and Your Health
What are flame retardants?
Simply put, flame retardants do precisely what they say – inhibit the start or slow the growth of a fire. They are chemicals applied to combustible materials. Because upholstered furniture and mattresses are often the first household items to ignite in the fire, these chemicals are often added to their fillings and fibers to allow more escape time in the event of a fire. Slowing the burn helps enhance safety by creating time during which people can escape.
From what are they made?
First of all, flame retardant describes a function rather than a family of chemicals. Many different chemicals (or natural substances) are used, and often these chemicals may be combined for effectiveness. (4)
The most commonly used retardants often contain bromine, which can be used in electronics, furniture, and building materials. These have been linked to endocrine disruption as well as other effects.
Flame retardants called Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) do not bind with the products added to, so they can quickly enter air and dust.
Why are people concerned about flame retardants?
Flame retardants seem to be ubiquitous, particularly since the introduction of synthetic materials into many consumer products. Because of the flammability of some of these materials, manufacturers needed a way to reduce fire danger easily and use of the chemicals became widespread.
There are concerns about their effect on human health, particularly since children can be easily exposed through contact between hands and mouth. The chemicals are persistent and long-lasting, both in the environment and in the human body. (2)
How are people exposed to flame retardants?
People are exposed to flame retardants in various ways, including diet, consumer products in the home, car, airplane, and workplace, and house dust. They can leak from products into the air, as well as into household dust. Also, chemicals can migrate into the food and water that we ingest, and they can be spread through skin contact.
Who needs to be most careful
Because they are smaller and their bodies and minds are still developing, children may be the most vulnerable to the ill effects of chemicals. Research has shown that children often have higher concentrations of flame retardants in their bodies than older people do – and, as we shall see, these retardants can have a very negative effect. Children also tend to have their hands in their mouths more.
“Of most concern are developmental and reproductive effects and early life exposures — in utero, infantile and for children,” Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, said in an interview. (2)
Firefighters are another group that needs to be aware of possible ill effects. (3)
Firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population, according to research by the CDC/National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH).
If you’re fighting fires for a living, you may be at increased risk of one day having to fight cancer as well. The complex mix of chemicals in smoke exposes firefighters to carcinogens associated with a variety of cancers. (3)
Finally, people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) need to be careful about exposure to chemical flame retardants, as even a low level of chemical exposure can cause symptoms. These can include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and neurological symptoms, among others.
What are the hazards of flame retardants?
One of the first hazards is the persistence of the products. Because they first came into use more commonly in the 1970s, some early flame retardants have been taken off the market. However, because they do not easily break down, flame retardants can remain persistent in the environment for years in substances like household dust. Unfortunately, they can build up in people and animals over time. The decisions we make now can easily affect others for many years to come.
Some of the adverse health effects associated with flame retardants are (1):
- Endocrine and thyroid disruption
- Impacts on the immune system
- Reproductive toxicity
- Adverse effects on fetal and child development
- Neurologic function
Some studies have shown children exposed to flame retardants may have poorer social skills. Exposure in utero could lower overall IQ and working memory. Other papers have demonstrated disruption to thyroid functions. (3) Finally, and most importantly, these chemicals are persistent and do not easily break down. Therefore, as talked about earlier, they can accumulate in the body for years.
Reducing chemical exposure
Companies are developing materials that will resist igniting, hence lessening the need for chemical flame retardants. “It’s essential that we rethink the base materials we use to make products,” said Kathy Curtis, who advocates for cleaner products as policy director of Clean New York. (2) Choice of material, reducing the number of flammable materials, and using particular types of fabric weaves, density, or composition, can reduce or even eliminate flame retardant application.
We also need to evaluate where flame retardants are required. Since items like a nursing pillow are rarely used without an adult present, are flame retardants necessary?
According to the EPA, there is a way to reduce the amount of chemicals without throwing out all of your furniture. Cleaning with a damp mop or using High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) vacuums can help reduce the amount of dust in your home that may contain flame retardants. (5)
Natural alternatives to chemical flame retardants