In 1973, the U.S. government passed a law requiring all children’s sleepwear to be fire resistant, believing they were preserving public health and keeping children safe. A mere five years later, scientists discovered the chemical used to make the fire retardant fabrics — brominated Tris — was responsible for rising incidences of cancer, and the chemical was banned by 1977.
However, other flame retardant chemicals continue to be used in baby toys, clothing, carpeting and furniture. Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., is known as one of the foremost experts in the field of fire retardant chemicals.1
In her most recent study, she focuses on four or five chemicals, but acknowledges there are dozens, if not hundreds, of flame retardant chemicals being used in electronics, cars, planes and household items.2
While the European Union has taken a strong stance to ban these chemicals, especially in those used by children, the U.S. has not followed suit.3 One type of flame retardant, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), resembles the molecular structure of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development.
In Stapleton’s most recent study from Duke University, she investigated the concentration of flame retardant chemicals found in children living in homes with vinyl flooring or flame retardant chemicals in their couch. These harmful semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) are a subgroup of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with a higher molecular weight.
What’s In Your Couch?
The group of SVOC chemicals include phthalates, PBDEs, PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and pesticides.4 Exposure to PBDEs has been linked to neurodevelopmental delays, obesity, cancer and other diseases.
Stapleton notes,5 “There has been little research on the relative contribution of specific products and materials to children’s overall exposure to SVOCs.” This gap in information prompted Stapleton and her colleagues to begin a three-year study of 203 children from 190 families with the primary goal to investigate links between products and exposure, and to determine how the exposure happened.
The team analyzed samples of air and dust from the children’s homes, and foam collected from furniture in each of the homes.6 Hand wipes to collect chemical samples from the hands, as well as blood and urine samples were collected from all children.
From this information, the researchers were able to quantify 44 biomarkers, finding children who lived in homes where the sofa in the main living area contained PBDEs had a six times higher concentration of PBDEs in their blood.7
Children in homes with vinyl flooring in all areas had urine concentrations of benzyl butyl phthalate metabolites that were 15 times higher than in children living in homes with no vinyl flooring. Benzyl butyl phthalate has been linked to respiratory disorders, multiple myeloma and reproductive disorders.
The Fight Continues to Remove Ineffective Carcinogenic Chemicals
This research confirms the results of a previous study Stapleton and colleagues did with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which found children had five times more fire retardant chemicals in their body than their mothers. The organophosphate chemical in that study — TDCPP (1,3-dichloroisoprophyl)phosphate — is used in foam to make sofas, pillows, mattresses and carpet padding.8
California has TDCPP on their Proposition 65 list of cancer-causing agents requiring a warning on all products using it. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) lists TDCPP as a probable carcinogen. Stapleton testified in front of CPSC for a hearing to ban organohalogen flame retardants in consumer products.9
In her testimony she stated that despite changes in the California flammability standard lowering the required amount of flame retardants in foam, the use is not decreasing.
Unfortunately, while Stapleton made an impassioned plea to the commission based on sound scientific evidence, it did not sway the entire board to vote to protect citizens. The CPSC did vote to approve an official guidance document recommending manufacturers reduce use, but passed it by only one vote.10
Take Care With Your Food and Water
One of the reasons organophosphates are so insidious is they can be inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through your skin. While Stapleton investigated the use of flame retardants in household items and electronics, researchers are also finding these common chemicals in popular foods, including peanut butter, fish and turkey.11
A study published in 201212 found nearly half of popular products purchased from a grocery store in Dallas contained traces of flame retardants commonly used in foam insulation. However, the team only tested for one flame retardant, hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD).
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),13 “HBCD is highly toxic to aquatic organisms … and presents human health concerns [for] potential reproductive, developmental and neurological effects.”
Speaking to the Huffington Post, a senior analyst with the EWG added that the chemical not only has been discovered in umbilical cord blood, but that the exposure most likely continues into childhood and beyond, through both environment and food.14
You can be exposed to flame retardants in a variety of ways, including the foods you eat, the water you drink and the products you use in your home or in your workplace. Chemicals can leak from products into dust and into the air, later settling onto food.15
Research16 published in 2015 found fire retardant chemical Tris phosphate and triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) in every single dust sample collected from American homes; 90.6 percent of urine samples from the residents also contained metabolites of Tris phosphate, and 83 percent of residents had metabolites of TPHP.
Other tests have shown 90 percent of Americans have flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies,17 and many have six or more types in their system.18 Flame retardant chemicals can enter the water supply by accumulating on dust particles. One study demonstrated seasonal variability of PBDEs with higher concentrations during the wet season in waterways close to dump sites.19
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), persistent man-made chemicals used in military firefighting foam, also seep into groundwater supplies.20 Two of the most well-known of the group are PFOA and PFOS, also associated with the production of Teflon.21
Flame Retardant Chemicals Associated With Multiple Health Challenges
In addition to the health concerns already mentioned, flame retardant chemicals have been linked to thyroid dysfunction. This is significant, especially for women who are pregnant as it has an effect on the unborn child.
In one study,22 researchers found a 10fold increase in PBDE chemicals was associated with decreases of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). With just one exception in the study, all women with low TSH levels had normal free T4 levels, corresponding to subclinical hyperthyroidism.
During pregnancy, hyperthyroidism has been linked to altered fetal neurodevelopment, and increase risk of premature birth or miscarriage, intrauterine growth retardation and decreased motor skills.23
More recent data from researchers at Harvard School of Public Health24,25 also found a greater risk for thyroid disorders — including hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, goiter and Hashimoto’s disease, a thyroid autoimmune disorder — in women who have elevated levels of flame retardant chemicals in their blood. Postmenopausal women were at greatest risk, having double the effect size compared to premenopausal women.
Researchers are only beginning to fully understand the legacy flame retardant chemicals have left on society. Cumulatively, data suggests an impact on thyroid regulation is highly likely and potentially implicates flame retardant chemicals in thyroid disease and cancers.26
Exposure during pregnancy is also associated with lower intelligence in children. For every 10fold increase in prenatal exposure to PBDEs, researchers27 found a 3.7 point decline in IQ test scores, which supports past research28 demonstrating a decline in IQ scores and also associated with a reduction in attention span and reduce fine motor coordination and cognitive ability.
Although it may seem a few points of IQ reduction is small, the widespread exposure to flame retardants makes the decrease serious. Even the loss of a few points on a population-wide level increases the number of children who will need early intervention and families who may face personal and economic burdens.
Flame Retardant Chemicals Don’t Do the Job
In 1975 California enacted the flammability standard TB117, requiring furniture and children’s products to be able to resist an open flame for 12 seconds. Manufacturing companies convinced regulators an open flame standard was needed to ensure safety.29 Recently, science has demonstrated chemical flame retardants, such as TDCPP and HBCD, do not slow fire in real life situations.
The initial open flame standard was based on faulty science and a misrepresentation by chemical companies. As a result, California changed TB117 standard to TB117-2013, a standard that no longer requires the use of flame retardants. However, while it doesn’t require it, the new regulation does not ban it either.
States also have the opportunity to address issues in their own fire codes. For instance, in the state of Massachusetts the fire code for public places was updated so areas with sprinkler systems can furnish the space with furniture complying to TB 117-2013, making the areas flame retardant-free.30 Many large retailers now have flame retardant-free furniture available for purchase.
Firefighters Face Additional Risk
About half of U.S. firefighters believe cancer is the greatest occupational health risk they face.31 Indeed, California female firefighters aged 40 to 50 are six times more likely to develop breast cancer than the national average.32,33 A major reason for this is because of the high levels of dioxins and furans firefighters are exposed to when flame-retardant chemicals burn.
What many fail to realize is an object treated with flame-retardant chemicals can indeed still catch fire — it’s merely retarded by seconds — and when it does go up in flames it will emit much higher levels of toxic carbon monoxide, soot and smoke than an untreated object.34
Ironically, these three things are more likely to kill you than a burn might, which means flame-retardant chemicals may actually make fires deadlier when you’re caught in them.35 According to the chemical industry, fire-retardant furniture provides a 15fold increase in escape time in the case of a fire.36,37
This claim came from a study using powerful, NASA-style flame retardants, which provided an extra 15 seconds of escape time. But this is not the same type of chemical used in most furniture. Tests have shown that the most widely used flame-retardant chemicals actually provide no meaningful benefit at all in case of a fire, while increasing the amount of toxic chemicals in the smoke.
Firefighters are subsequently exposed in their personal furniture and household, in the firehouse and in the fire. In response, many individuals and firefighter organizations are taking a more active role in fighting the application of fire retardant chemicals to household items.38
Test Your Furniture for Free
As part of Duke University’s educational outreach,39 Stapleton created a foam testing lab allowing consumers to send in up to five small samples to have them tested for free. The foam samples from the consumer’s homes are prepared and run through mass spectrometers to identify flame retardants.
The sample is also chemically tested. The results are compared against the library of known retardants and when one is detected it’s compared to a standard. Duke University uses the information in a study and sends the consumer a report detailing their findings on their individual samples. You can find more information about this project, and instructions for how to submit your samples, on the University’s website.40
Several other steps you may consider to help reduce your exposure to flame retardant chemicals are discussed in my previous article, “Fire-Retardant Chemicals Are Contaminating Drinking Water Across the US.”