Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Flame Retardants

I’m not keeping up with this blog very well lately, due in part to the fact that I’m spending a lot of time putting our garage back together after a fire we had in October. It seems appropriate that when I pull myself away from that task it’s to write about flame retardants. Like so many chemicals before them, they are an example of a good idea gone very wrong.

The History

The widespread use of chemical flame retardants began in 1975, when the state of California adopted a law requiring children’s products and “seating furninture” (couches, loveseats and chairs) to meet certain flammability standards. Fill material in furniture was required to withstand a small flame for at least twelve seconds. In order to comply with the law, manufacturers began adding chemicals, mostly those known as Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (“PDBEs”) to their products. A typical sofa can contain up to two pounds of chemical flame retardants.

Because California is so large, manufacturers who don’t wish to be shut out of California’s market often change their entire product lines in order to meet California’s requirements. This was the case with fire standards. Most furniture and children’s products in the U.S. are manufactured to meet California’s requirements and contain large amounts of PDBEs or similar chemicals. Flame retardants can also be found in electronics, insulation, carpet padding, children’s clothing, automobiles, crib mattresses, adult mattresses manufactured before 2007, and other products.

The Problem

Unfortunately, chemical fire retardants have been linked to a wide range of negative health and environmental  effects. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that PDBEs may be “persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment.”  They note that since they are not chemically bound to the products in which they are used, they may easily migrate from them.

The problem of PDBEs leaching from products means that the chemicals accumulate in the home environment. Duke University reports on research showing that the concentration of flame retardants in household dust is as concentrated as that found in sewage sludge. Flame retardants can be found in the blood of virtually every American, in much higher levels than found in residents of other countries. Children often have higher levels than do adults. The Environmental Working Group notes that a 2008 study found levels of fire retardants in children’s blood to be three times higher than those of their mothers.

PBDEs are chemically similar to thyroid hormones and can mimic them in the human body. Thyroid hormones are important for brain development and metabolism and many of the health problems associated with flame retardants relate to these areas. Human and animal studies have found the following health problems associated with PDBEs and other chemical flame retardants:

  • Decreased IQ
  • Poor attention
  • Hyperactivity
  • Memory problems
  • Impaired fine-motor control
  • Weight gain
  • Anxiety
  • Thyroid abnormalities
  • Early Puberty
  • Abnormal reproductive cycles
  • Reduced fertility
  • Lower birth weight
  • Birth defects
  • DNA mutation
  • Increased cancer risk
  • Increased diabetes risk

Because house pets share the home environment, they are as affected by chemicals in the home as human residents are. Seattle’s KOMO News reports that flame retardants may be killing cats. The article notes that in recent decades, millions of indoor cats have developed hyperthyroidism, which is often fatal, and that “significant association” has been found between the illness and flame retardants.

Small Victories

There’s a small bit of good news. Recently, California has changed the way in which flammability is measured. The 12-second flame test has been replaced by a “smolder” test, based on one proposed by the American Society for Testing and Materials. It should be easier for manufacturers to meet the new requirements without using flame retardants. They will still be allowed to use the chemicals, but the hope is that increasing numbers will choose not to do so.

Although the original law was undoubtedly well-intentioned, there is little data to indicate that flame retardants have significantly reduced fire risk. Treated products still burn, and the smoke they produce when they do may be highly toxic. Many firefighters have joined the campaign to reduce flame retardant use because of the dangers associated with inhaling chemical-laden smoke. The Centers for Disease Control notes that firefighters have significantly higher rates of many types of cancer.

How to Reduce Your Exposure

Flame retardants are difficult to avoid, but there are steps people can take to reduce their exposure, including the following:

  • Avoid products made with polyurethane foam when possible. Generally fillings made of down, wool, or polyester are not treated with flame retardants.

  • Minimize your exposure to household dust. This can mean cleaning with a damp rag or mop to avoid spreading dust, using air purifiers and vacuums with HEPA filters, and replacing carpet with hard surface flooring.

  • Wash hands often, especially before eating. The Duke study noted that the amount of flame retardant on toddlers’ hands was a good predictor of the levels in their blood, suggesting that hand to mouth may be the biggest exposure pathway.

  • Watch what you drink. Oddly enough, brominated vegetable oil (BVO), which is commonly found in sports drinks and citrus sodas, was patented as a flame retardant. Many researchers are concerned that the brominated oil may have the same effects as other brominated chemicals like PBDE. BVO has been banned as a food additive in Japan and the European Union, but is allowed in the US and Canada.

As with other issues of product toxicity, consumers can advocate for change by creating demand for healthier goods. When considering the purchase of new furnishings or other products, it can be helpful to call or write the manufacturer to ask about the use of flame retardants. If we care about the issue, manufacturers need to know.