By Dr. Mercola
Wondering whether your son or daughter will be able to successfully complete the required coursework may no longer be your biggest worry when sending your child off to college. New studies suggest dorm life may be more hazardous than you might expect due to the presence of extraordinarily high levels of toxic flame retardants.
According to Newsweek,1 scientists studying dust samples collected from college dormitories suggest students may be living among, and breathing in, chemical toxins that may negatively affect their health.
Why the Dust in College Dorms Is a Cause for Concern
Research published in Environmental Science & Technology2 indicates that scientists uncovered large quantities of chemicals designed to suppress fire — also known as flame retardants — in 95 dust samples collected from dormitory common areas and student rooms at two U.S. colleges.
Scientists found all 47 flame retardants that were targeted by the study, some of which are believed to cause cancer and disrupt hormones. Two flame retardants, which are classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs,3 were detected in the dorm dust at record levels:
- Decabromodiphenyl ether, or DecaBDE: a flame retardant largely phased out in 2013, which the U.S. EPA has tagged as a “possible carcinogen” due to it having been shown to cause cancer in lab animals
- Pentabromodiphenyl ether, or PentaBDE: a chemical the U.S. EPA banned from manufacture in 2005, mainly because it is a known endocrine disruptor
Dorms Found to Contain Alarmingly High Concentrations of Flame Retardants
Certain PBDEs, which are used as flame retardants in applications such as automobiles, plastics, textiles and wire insulation, have been shown to be “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic to both humans and the environment,” states the U.S. EPA.4 Researchers suspect college dorms contain a higher level of flame retardants because they are small, somewhat-confined spaces containing a lot of electronics and furniture.
Due to their limited budgets, college students often use old furniture and bedding, some of which may contain flame retardants that have since been banned. Because PBDEs are not chemically bound to fabrics, foam, plastics or the other products in which they are used, they are susceptible to leaching. Chemical-laden particles from electronics and furniture leach over time and are collected in room dust.
In the study, levels found and cited for the primary chemical within DecaBDE were a shocking nine times higher than anything previously recorded. Concentrations of PentaBDE were four times higher than levels found in any other environment.
How Do Flame Retardants Affect Your Health?
Four particular flame retardants were found in 100 percent of the dust samples studied, and three of them are suspected carcinogens believed to be capable of causing cancer. Of the three suspected carcinogens, one of them, known as TCIPP or tris (1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate, was found in dorms at levels twice the median quantities found in other indoor environments.
While the effects of TCIPP require further study, chemicals similar in structure have been shown to have toxic effects on animal brain cells and are thought to decrease sperm counts and thyroid levels in humans.5 About the fourth chemical, named TPHP (triphenyl phosphate), the Environmental Working Group states, “[T]here is growing evidence that the chemical could affect hormones, metabolism, reproduction and development.”6
In a 2013 study,7 rats were exposed to the flame-retardant mixture Firemaster 550®, which is used in foam-based products and contains up to 20 percent TPHP. Scientists found that components of the chemical accumulated in tissues of rats, both before and after birth, resulting in obesity and early puberty for female rats. As such, researchers suspect TPHP is an endocrine disruptor.
Miriam Diamond, Ph.D., a professor in the department of earth sciences at the University of Toronto, says it will take time to quantify the health risks of these substances. She states:8
“One reason why it’s not possible [to quantify the health risks] is because these chemicals tend to have effects that take a long time to manifest. Those effects are endocrine disruption … where the strongest evidence shows effects due to fetal exposure. The second reason is that the effects are not known for all the [flame retardants], and we don't know the impact of exposure to the complex mixture of chemicals people come into contact with in the U.S. and elsewhere.”
Industry Groups Try to Make Flame Retardants Seem Better Than They Really Are
Industry groups are notorious for making product-based toxins seems less harmful than they really are, and flame retardants are no exception. According to Newsweek, Bryan Goodman, a spokesman for the powerful and well-funded American Chemistry Council, an industry group, said the threat of toxicity is outweighed by the perceived need for flame retardants. He suggests:9
“[M]any of the chemicals found in this study have been phased out. The quantities of flame retardants found in dust were also ‘far lower than the levels at which toxicological responses have been observed in animal studies.’
‘Fire is still a real threat to life and property, and college campuses are no exception. … [F]lame retardants, which are used at times by manufacturers to meet these flammability standards, can be an important line of defense for those living on college campuses.’”
Do Flame Retardants Even Work?
Goodman’s comments sound well intentioned until you realize the evidence that suggests flame retardants are effective in making fires less deadly is actually quite weak.
In the video below, an investigative story produced by the Chicago Tribune,10 it’s clear that some household items treated with flame retardants burn at rates similar to untreated items. Furthermore, flame retardants can give rise to toxic fumes that are thought to cause cancer, hormone disruption and neurological deficits.
According to Jon Whelan, director of the 2015 documentary “Stink!,”11 trade associations like the American Chemistry Council seek to influence policymakers to support greater use of chemicals in the baby-care products, furniture, household goods and personal products you use every day. He states:12
“The American Chemistry Council is the most powerful trade association anywhere, and it spends hundreds of millions of dollars to influence public opinion, fund political campaigns and underwrite aggressive lobbying efforts. Their goal is to avoid regulation that would impact profits of the largest chemical companies in the world.”
Citizens for Fire Safety Revealed as Chemical-Industry Front Group
After the release of the Chicago Tribune’s investigative report in 2012, a nonprofit organization known as Citizens for Fire Safety was outed as an industry front group. Prior to the investigative report, as the name seems to imply, Citizens for Fire Safety presented themselves as a band of concerned Americans advocating for fire safety.
In reality, the organization was a trade association formed by three of the largest makers of flame retardants in the world: Albemarle Corporation, Chemtura and ICL Industrial Products. At the time, these three companies were believed to produce 40 percent of the flame retardants used worldwide.13
These companies used Citizens for Fire Safety to wage what the Tribune called “a deceptive campaign to fuel demand for the chemicals in household furniture, electronics, baby products and other goods.”14 In terms of the activities undertaken by Citizens for Fire Safety, the Tribune said:15
“Citizens for Fire Safety played an active role in states where legislators have proposed banning certain flame retardants. Its tactics included distributing videos featuring ominous music, footage of burning houses and narrators warning that restrictions on the chemicals would endanger children. The group also sponsored witnesses who testified before state legislators in favor of flame retardants.”
American Chemistry Council Was Backing Citizens for Fire Safety All Along
The American Chemistry Council long maintained it had nothing to do with the enormously successful, albeit deceitful, lobbying campaigns employed by Citizens for Fire Safety since 2007 to defend the use of flame retardants. Notably, during the five years of its existence, Citizens for Fire Safety was successful in defeating 58 of 60 pieces of legislation to ban chemical flame retardants across 21 U.S. states.16
Evidence of the council’s involvement emerged in 2015. At that time, Grant Gillham, the executive director of Citizens for Fire Safety, revealed that although the American Chemistry Council denied involvement, it actually helped create Citizens for Fire Safety. Gillham said the two organizations frequently coordinated activities. “They flat out lied about it," Gillham stated. "They denied that they ever did anything with us."
About the flame-retardant industry overall, a seemingly disillusioned Gillham later told the Los Angeles Times,17 “I don't believe the industry has the science to support their claims that these products are safe, and that they work.”
Tips on Protecting Yourself From Flame Retardants
Regardless of your opinion about flame retardants, based on the findings to date, it is a good idea to limit your exposure to them as much as possible. Robin Dodson, Ph.D., research scientist at the Massachusetts-based Silent Spring Institute, was lead author of the dust study. She and Diamond share the following recommendations:18
- When purchasing new items, seek out electronics and furniture that do not contain flame retardants
- Avoid using older furniture in college dorm rooms, because the foam padding and other materials may very likely contain flame retardants
- Remind your college student to vacuum and dust on a regular basis to remove toxic debris that leaches into their living area from electronics and furniture (Good luck with this one!)
- Ensure dorm rooms are well ventilated to avoid a build-up of leached chemicals
- Take care to wash your hands after touching electronics such as cell phones, keyboards, laptops and tablets, most of which contain flame retardants
You should be aware that polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005 — including foam used in mattresses, pillows and upholstered furniture — likely contain PBDEs. If you are not ready to replace these items, at least take care to ensure the foam is in good repair and remains covered.
Older carpet padding is another major source of PBDEs, so take precautions when removing old carpet. You'll want to isolate your work area from the rest of your house to avoid spreading it around. For best results, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to clean up. When replacing furniture and household items, look for products filled with cotton and wool, or even polyester, because they tend to be safer than chemical-treated foam. Look for items labeled as "flame-retardant free."
High-Quality, Nontoxic Bedding Is Vitally Important to Your Health
As you replace PBDE-containing items around your home, I recommend you select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as cotton, leather and wool. This is particularly important for items you sit or sleep on for many hours each day.
Since you spend hours a day in bed, you’ll want to give special attention to your mattress and bedding. Having purchased bedding for eight family members, Wellness Mama recommends organic bedding that is GOTS (global organic textile standards) certified.19 If you are concerned about toxic chemicals in your mattress, it’s worth your time to review some of my previous recommendations.
Cleaning Products Are Another Likely Source of Toxins in Your Living Space
As you attempt to clean up and keep up with leaching flame retardants, take caution with the cleaning supplies you choose. If you don’t, you may end up dousing your living space with even more toxic chemicals, many of which are not clearly identified on product labels. Concerns about the safety of cleaning products is growing nationwide.
Newsday reports New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is working on a measure that will require manufacturers to disclose all ingredients used, as well as any trace contaminants added during processing.20 In part, the state is focused on a chemical known as 1,4-dioxane, a probable carcinogen, which has shown up in Long Island’s aquifers. Although 1,4-dioxane is primarily used as a solvent in manufacturing, it often ends up in cleaning and personal care products as a byproduct, and eventually lands in water supplies.
During the manufacture of products like cosmetics, deodorant, shampoo and toothpaste, 1,4-dioxane develops through a process known as ethoxylation, which increases foaming and makes products less abrasive.21
Beyond 1,4-dioxane, the governor hopes to draw more attention to the thousands of other chemicals that are believed to be asthma inducers, carcinogens, eye and skin irritants, endocrine disrupters and neurotoxins. About the pending regulation, Dr. Howard Zucker, New York State commissioner of health, said:22
“[It] will give New York consumers the tools they need to make informed choices for themselves and for their families, and limit unknown exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.”
Healthy Cleaning Products You Can Make at Home
Healthy Holistic Living (HHL) provides two graphics containing tips on how to create nontoxic cleaning products for use in your home and college dorm room. You may have some of the primary ingredients in your pantry already:23
✓ Castile soap
✓ Lemon juice
✓ White vinegar
One suggested HHL “recipe” is for nontoxic grout cleaner:
- In a container, mix one-half cup baking soda with one-quarter cup of white vinegar.
- Use a toothbrush to apply the paste to your floor or shower grout, and scrub.
- Let mixture sit for five minutes, and rinse.
Even Small Steps to Reduce Your Toxin Load Can Make a Positive Difference
While the amount of potentially-toxic chemicals in your living environment may seem overwhelming and beyond your ability to control, I encourage you to focus on even the smallest of areas you are able to control.
Start by reading the labels on your most-used personal care products and household cleaning products. As you are able to replace bedding and furniture, be sure to look for those comprised of organic, naturally flame-retardant materials in lieu of those doused in toxic chemicals. With one small, intentional step at a time, you can begin recovering your personal health and safety, whether you are at home or away at college.