Flame retardants threaten the health and may potentially do more harm than good in a fire. Not all flame retardants are harmful, but some, including organophosphates, are known to cause adverse health effects, with human and animal studies linking them to cancer, hormonal changes, and fertility problems. A British study of the American Chemical Society (ACS) showed that flame retardants increase the danger of invisible toxic gases, the leading cause of death in fires. Young children are particularly susceptible to the toxicity of flame retardant chemicals. They can ingest significantly more of these chemicals than adults because they crawl around on floors, then put their hands and other objects into their mouths.
Although flame retardants can offer benefits when added to some products, a growing body of evidence shows that many of these chemicals are associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans. These include:
A new study has found that flame retardants—used in everything from furniture to baby toys—are increasingly showing up in people’s bodies, raising potential health concerns. What’s more, flame retardants known collectively as “Tris” are used in baby products, furniture, automotive foam cushioning, strollers, nursing pillows, televisions, computers, adhesives, upholstery, carpets backing, rubber, plastics, paints, and varnishes. They have been linked to cancer and can harm the liver, kidney, brain, and testes.
If you closely examine your living room couch, your favorite easy chair, or your child’s car seat, the odds are strong that you will find upholstery that is filled with polyurethane foam treated with a chemical flame retardant. Some may find that comforting: Isn’t it desirable to hold an accidental fire at bay, one caused by, say, a burning cigarette or faulty electrical wiring? But studies show that many flame-resistant chemicals loom as potential health menaces, associated with cancers, memory loss, lower I.Q.s and impaired motor skills in children, to name a few woes. Isn’t it just as desirable, some would also say, to keep such substances out of people’s lives?
Concerns about the chemicals’ health effects continued to grow. This is due to the fact that the retardants do not form a chemical link with the foam. As a result, they don’t fit well into cushions and mattresses. They are able to flee into the surroundings. When a person sits on a couch, chemically contaminated air is ejected from the upholstery. These pollutants settle on household dust, travel outside, and even make their way into rivers and breast milk. Small children, who are prone to putting nearly everything in their mouths, are especially vulnerable since they play on floors covered in chemically tainted dust. Flame retardants can enter the body through a variety of routes, including diet, consumer products in the home, cars, planes, the workplace, and house dust.
Over the past 40 years, a class of chemicals with the tongue-twisting name of halogenated flame retardants has permeated people’s lives throughout the industrialized world. These synthetic chemicals — used in electronics, upholstery, carpets, textiles, insulation, vehicle and airplane parts, children’s clothes and strollers, and many other products — have proven very effective at making petroleum-based materials resist fire.
Yet many of these compounds have also turned out to be environmentally mobile and persistent — turning up in food and household dust — and are now so ubiquitous that levels of the chemicals in the blood of North Americans appear to have been doubling every two to five years for the past several decades.
Acting on growing evidence that these flame retardants can accumulate in people and cause adverse health effects — interfering with hormones, reproductive systems, thyroid, and metabolic function, and neurological development in infants and children — the federal government and various states have limited or banned the use of some of these chemicals, as have other countries. Several are restricted by the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants. Many individual companies have voluntarily discontinued the production and use of these compounds.
Yet despite these restrictions, evidence has emerged in recent months that efforts to curtail the use of such flame retardants — a $4 billion-a-year industry globally — and limit their impacts on human health may not succeed.
Five ways F.R. clothing is improperly worn:
So, to make sure your F.R. clothing complies and ready to keep you safe, remember:
The study authors called for a federal government ban on the use of fire retardant chemicals in products intended for babies and children, a requirement that furniture manufacturers label their products and disclose which specific fire retardant chemicals are present, and reform of federal policies requiring toxicity testing before chemicals are sold in the U.S. I support these efforts and encourage consumers to make their concerns known.