Recently, the state of Maryland passed a law banning flame retardants. I saw the news and happily shared the information on my Instagram stories, and realized that me celebrating a flame retardant ban may seem a bit random or odd. Before my MPH in Environmental Health Science, I could not have cared less about flame retardants. I probably never even gave them a second thought.
But, after learning lots about them, I grew passionate about reducing my personal exposure, and informing others about flame retardants and how to avoid them. So, here is some information about flame retardants! I hope you find it interesting. Feel free to leave comments or questions at the end of the post, or reach out to me on social media. Enjoy!
What are flame retardants?
Flame retardants are chemicals that were designed to prevent fire or slow its spread. They are often added to or applied to many products, including furniture, mattresses, curtains, carpets, blinds, electronics like laptops, phones, TVs, remotes, household appliances, wires and cables, building and construction materials, and transportation products like seats and seat covers and other parts of airplanes and trains.
There are several classes of flame retardants. Persistent brominated flame-retardants (PBDEs) are a common class of flame retardants that gained popularity in the 1970s when manufacturers began adding them to furniture, electronics, and other materials to meet certain flammability standards.
In a time where cigarette-induced couch fires were common, and people often fell asleep smoking in bed, the use of flame retardants was pushed by the tobacco industry, so that they could avoid creating a fire-safe cigarette and maintain sales.
Because flame retardants are added to products rather than chemically bound to them, they can be released into the environment. And because they are persistent, they can bioaccumulate, meaning build up, in humans and animals. Humans may also be exposed to bioaccumulate flame retardants via consumption of fatty meats, dairy, and fish.
Thanks to expert opinion and public pressure, PBDEs were slowly phased out of production starting in 2004. Unfortunately, as is common with many chemical bans and phase-outs, other flame retardants, including TBB and TBPH, simultaneously emerged onto the scene.
So even if you are buying new furniture, unless it is labeled as flame-retardant-free, it most likely has one of the new classes of flame retardants. And of course, even though new furniture may not have PDBEs added to it, there’s still a risk of owning old furniture, which may still leach out these chemicals.
Who is at risk for exposure?
Everyone who uses manufactured furniture, electronics, and certain textiles may be at risk for exposure to flame retardants.
Human exposure most often occurs through ingestion of foods or dust containing the particles. Even those who purchase flame-retardant-free products may be at risk for exposure due to build up in our environment from improper disposal of old furniture and appliances covered in flame retardants. And of course, using old furniture and textiles also encours and additional risk.
Because their brains and organs are still developing, children are especially vulnerable to flame retardants. And because children have faster rates of respiration compared to adults, are more likely to spend time on the floor, and are more likely to have frequent hand-to-mouth behaviors, they are at risk of exposing more of the
In fact, a 2017 study from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health that tested for the presence of flame retardants on the hands and in the homes of New York City mothers and toddlers found that 100% of dust samples and 95% of hand wipe samples tested positive for containing PBCE and TPHH.
What are some potential health risks of flame retardants for adults?
PDBE, one of the major classes of flame retardants, are considered endocrine disrupting chemicals, meaning they mimic or block hormones in the human body.
In particular, PBDEs have been shown to disrupt estrogen and thyroid hormones.
What are some potential health risks associated with flame retardant exposes for children?
As mentioned above, children seem to be at greatest risk for the health impacts of flame retardants. Animal studies have suggested a particularly concerning impact on proper neurodevelopment that may persist into adulthood.
In fact, one study found that even a single dose of exposure led to lasting brain and behavioral changes, including hyperactivity, in exposed pups.
But what about humans? Well, epidemiological data has thus far confirmed what has been found in animal studies.
In a review study, in utero exposure (meaning, the mother was exposed while pregnant) to PDBEs was linked to adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes, including motor, cognitive, and behavioral traits.
In fact, a 2010 study that sampled PBDEs in umbilical cords of babies and followed the children over time, found that children that were exposed to the highest levels of PBDE in utero had full IQ scores 5.5-8 points lower, on average, than those with lower exposure.
Other cohort studies have shown that prenatal and childhood exposure to PBDEs were associated with poorer attention, cognition, and fine motor skills compared to those who had lesser exposure.
Your furry friends may also be at risk.
Emerging research has suggested a link between feline exposure to flame retardants on furniture and increased risk of feline hypothyroidism. I couldn’t find any research on dogs yet, but this is still something to consider if you have furry friends in the house.
How can I reduce my exposure to flame retardants?
First and foremost, you can refrain from purchasing furniture, mattresses, and materials that are made with flame retardants.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, considering most pieces of furniture, mattresses and textiles come with flame retardants on them. In my experience, I can say that it takes a legitimate amount of effort to seek out flame-retardant free furnishings and mattresses, and that they often come at a premium price.
Specifically, it’s worth avoiding furniture with polyurethane foam that says it “meets the California standard for furniture flammability” Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117).
You can also be sure to replace any furniture that is filled with foam that may have ripped or broken down.
When it comes to purchasing electronics like TVs, computers, etc, try to purchase from companies including Acer, Apple, Eizo Nanao, LG, Lenovo, Microsoft, Nokia, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba which have pledged to produce PDBE-free products.
When shopping for clothes and bedding, select natural fibers such as cotton. You may need to ask suppliers if they use flame retardants on their textile products.
If it’s not possible to purchase flame-retardant free products, you can reduce your exposure by increasing hand washing and house cleaning. Specifically, vacuuming with a HEPA filter and wet-mopping may decrease the likelihood that you will ingest flame retardants orally via dust.
Lastly, as PBDEs accumulate in fatty tissues, limiting consumption of fatty meats and farmed fish may decrease oral exposure.
Flame retardants are chemicals that were designed to prevent fire or slow its spread and they have been added to various furnishings, electronics, and textiles throughout the years.
Known endocrine disruptors, these chemicals poise health risks, and are especially dangerous to the neurodevelopment of young children. To reduce your exposure to flame retardants, try to purchase flame-retardant-free furniture, clothing, fabrics, and electronics, and be vigilant in hand washing and home cleaning.
Oh, and support scientists and policies that limit chemical application to consumer goods, or mandate chemical application transparency.
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