Flame-retardant chemicals were developed in the 1970s, when 40 percent of Americans smoked and cigarettes were a major cause of fires.
The tobacco industry, under increasing pressure to make fire-safe cigarettes, resisted the push for self-extinguishing cigarettes, and instead created a fake front group called the National Association of State Fire Marshals.
The group pushed for federal standards for fire-retardant furniture, and in 1975 California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) was passed. It required furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small flame without igniting.
Because of California's economic importance, the requirement essentially became a national standard, with manufacturers dousing their furniture with the chemicals whether they're going to be sold in California or elsewhere in the States.
Since then, their use has skyrocketed. Research published in Environmental Science & Technology revealed that 85 percent of couch foam samples tested contained chemical flame retardants.
As of July 1, 2007, all US mattresses are required to be highly flame retardant, to the extent that they won't catch on fire if exposed to a blowtorch.
Aside from couches and mattresses, such chemicals were detected in 73 percent of car seats tested by The Ecology Center, while a separate study in Environmental Science & Technology also detected flame-retardant chemicals in 80 percent of the following children's products tested, including portable cribs, nursing pillows, strollers, and more.
This is especially concerning in light of new research showing flame-retardant chemicals may lead to attention problems in children…
Flame Retardants Known to Cause Reproductive Problems and Impaired Fetal Brain Development
One type of flame-retardant chemicals, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), has been banned in the US since 2004 due to health concerns. PBDEs resemble the molecular structure of PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and impaired fetal brain development.
Like PCBs, PBDEs persist in the environment and accumulate in your body – and can still exist in products imported from other countries or those manufactured prior to the ban (including electronics, upholstered furniture, and more).
Higher exposures to PBDEs have been linked to decreased fertility, which could be in part because the chemicals may mimic your thyroid hormones. Previous research has suggested PBDEs can lead to decreases in TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone).
When present with normal T4 levels, low TSH is typically a sign that you're developing hyperthyroidism, which can have significant ramifications both for you and your unborn child if you're pregnant.
Flame Retardants May Lead to Attention Problems in Young Children
Mounting evidence also suggests PBDEs are developmental neurotoxicants, and new research published in the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology linked the chemicals with attention problems in 3- to 7-year-old children.
The researchers followed 210 mother-child pairs who were part of the World Trade Center Study, a cohort established after the September 11, 2001 attack. Cord blood samples were taken at birth and analyzed for PBDEs to assess prenatal exposure. The children’s behavior was also assessed from age 3 to 7.
The study revealed that children with the highest exposure to certain PBDEs had about double the number of attention problems as children with lower exposure. The featured study concluded:
“Our findings demonstrate a positive trend between prenatal PBDE exposure and early childhood attention problems, and are consistent with previous research reporting associations between prenatal PBDE exposure and disrupted child behaviors.”
For instance, a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley revealed that both in utero and childhood PBDE exposures were associated with neurodevelopmental delays, including poorer attention, fine motor coordination, and cognition in school-age children.
Yet another study also found that children whose mothers were exposed to flame-retardant chemicals during pregnancy had lower IQ and were more prone to hyperactivity disorders.
Are There Still PBDEs Around Your Home?
PBDE-containing products may still be lurking around your home, despite the ban. Tips you can use to reduce your exposure to PBDEs around your home include:
- Be especially careful with polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses, and pillows, as these are most likely to contain PBDEs.
If you have any of these in your home, 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.
- 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).
- As you replace PBDE-containing items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, and cotton.
- Look for organic and "green" building materials, carpeting, baby items, mattresses, and upholstery, which will be free from these toxic chemicals and help reduce your overall exposure. 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."
Organic wool (100 percent) is naturally flame-resistant. Even if you hold a match to wool, it will self-extinguish in moments. This is why I use one of our wool mattresses, as it's free of these dangerous flame retardants like PBDE. Organic cotton or flannel also tends to be flame-resistant. Kevlar fibers, the material they make bulletproof vests out of, is also sufficient to pass the fire safety standards. Stearns and Foster is one brand that sells this type of mattress.
- PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often.
Children May Have Five Times More Flame Retardants in Their Bodies Than Their Moms
About 75 percent of California residents have flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies, according to a late 2014 study. Many of them had no less than six different kinds, including one (chlorinated tris, or TDCIPP) that was phased out of children’s pajamas in the 1970s.
Also surprising was the discovery of tris-(2-chloroethyl) phosphate, or TCEP, which has never been detected in Americans before. TCEP is a known carcinogen and damages your nervous and reproductive systems. The study highlighted an important finding, which was that those with the highest levels lived in homes with the highest levels in household dust.
This means that flame-retardant chemicals lurking in your home – in your mattress and your couch cushions, for instance – are a primary source of exposure, and children, who spend more time playing on the floor and putting their hands in their mouth, may be most at risk.
Scientists at Duke University’s Superfund Research Center recently uncovered a flame retardant that is not yet identified in the academic literature. The chemical is a chlorinated organophosphate similar to TDCPP, but its health effects are unknown.
Not only did the researchers find traces (and more) of TDCPP in every study participant tested, but also the average concentration in children was close to five times that of their moms. High levels of flame-retardant chemicals used to make Firemaster flame-retardant products were also detected (Firemaster 550 has been used to replace two other PBDEs that were removed from the market).
In a separate study, the Duke researchers uncovered that children who wash their hands at least five times a day have 30 percent to 50 percent lower levels of flame retardants on their hands than children who wash their hands less frequently, adding credence to the theory that household dust (which then coats your hands) may be a primary route of exposure to these (and other) toxic chemicals.
Do Flame Retardants Really Save Lives in a Fire?
Considering all the health risks, you might assume flame retardants redeem themselves by saving lives in the event of a fire. In the CNN video above, you can see a comparison of two burning chairs, one treated with flame-retardant chemicals and one without. In less than a minute, the differences in visible flames between the two chairs are minimal. Inez Tenenbaum, chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, testified before the Senate that:
“The fire-retardant foams did not offer a practically significant greater level of open flame safety than the untreated foams.”
Andrew McGuire of the Trauma Foundation also reported to CNN that flame retardants put into furniture foam are not effective because the foam is not ignited by a match, open flame, or cigarette. Instead, it’s the fabric that ignites first, and the flames from the burning fabric overwhelm the flame-retardant chemicals.
Research has also shown that certain flame-retardant chemicals (halogen-based flame retardants) actually increase the amounts of toxic carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide gas released into the air during a fire. Inhalation of these gasses, not burns, is actually the leading cause of death in fires!
Even Firefighters Want to Get Rid of Flame Retardants
No one, perhaps, has more credibility to speak about flame-retardant chemicals than firefighters, who would certainly be in favor of such chemicals if they actually worked. But, what many do not realize is that an object treated with flame-retardant chemicals can still catch fire, and, when it does, it will give off higher levels of toxic carbon monoxide, soot, and smoke than an untreated object.
California female firefighters aged 40 to 50 are six times more likely to develop breast cancer than the national average. Firefighters of both genders also have higher rates of cancer, in part because of the high levels of dioxins and furans they're exposed to when flame-retardant chemicals burn.
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 such legislation. According to the Star Tribune:
"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, 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.
California Does Away with Open-Flame Test for Furniture
On a positive note, California revised Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) so that an open flame test is no longer required. As of January 1, 2015, compliance with the updated TB117-2013 became mandatory, which requires upholstered furniture sold in the state to no longer smolder 45 minutes after a lit cigarette is placed on it. This requirement can be met without the use of flame-retardant chemicals (although the law does not ban their use). For instance, a fire barrier such as polyester batting may be added as a liner in lieu of the chemicals.
In California, furnishings that are in compliance with the updated flammability standards will carry a "TB 117-2013" tag indicating its compliance. Look for this tag and ask the retailer whether a particular piece contains flame-retardant chemicals.