Chemical Flame Retardants in Our Homes and Bodies
Organohalogen flame retardants are added to a wide range of products commonly found in our homes, including children's products (in the foam in nursing pillows, crib mattresses, strollers, baby carriers, sleep mats, and changing table pads), furniture, mattresses, and electronic casings. Organohalogen flame retardants are toxic, contribute to a range of adverse health impacts, and are largely ineffective in improving fire safety.
Additive flame retardants are released from these common products and are absorbed by household dust, leading to widespread human exposures. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 97 percent of people living in the U.S. have measurable quantities of organohalogen flame retardants in their blood.
Organohalogen flame retardants have been linked with a wide range of adverse human health impacts:
- Reproductive disorders (e.g., birth defects, infertility)
- Neurological disorders (e.g., decreased IQ in children, hyperactivity)
- Interference with thyroid hormone action (potentially contributing to diabetes and obesity)
Fetuses, Infants, and Small Children Are Disproportionately Impacted
Chemical flame retardants can penetrate the placenta and accumulate in fetal tissues, and breastfeeding mothers can continue to pass these toxins onto children even after birth. Researchers estimate that children ingest up to ten times as much of these chemicals as adults due to their tendency to put their hands and other objects into their mouths, and because they spend time close to the ground. Furthermore, infants and small children are more susceptible to the impacts of these chemicals due to their small size and developing bodies.
Organohalogen flame retardants are commonly detected in our environment. Flame retardants were the most common emerging contaminant in a 2002 U.S. Geological Survey study that analyzed 139 streams and rivers across the country. According to USGS, these chemicals are present in virtually every treated wastewater discharge in the nation. Organohalogen flame retardants can be:
- Toxic: Chemicals are harmful to fish and wildlife, and contribute to chronic health problems.
- Persistent: They do not break down into safer chemicals in the environment.
- Transported long distances: Flame retardants been found as far afield as the Arctic Circle.
- Bio-accumulative: Once in the environment, these chemicals collect in the fatty tissues of fish and wildlife, and can become more concentrated as they move up the food chain.
Smarter Fire Safety
There is growing evidence indicating that chemical flame retardants are ineffective at protecting the public from fires. In fact, household fires have actually become more toxic over the years as plastic appliances and furniture containing flame retardants have become more common. This puts firefighters and other first responders at an elevated risk of developing certain cancers from exposure to toxic fumes. A study of American firefighters from 1950-2009 found that firefighters are more likely to develop certain health problems, including brain tumors and bone marrow and testicular cancers, than the general public.
As conventional wisdom about fire safety has improved, so has our fire prevention infrastructure. The increased use of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, improved building codes, improved firefighter training, and reductions in cigarette consumption have all led to a reduction in fire-related deaths, calling into question the need for chemical flame retardants in everyday household products.
Updated by lburch 11/23/15