Safety of Flame Retardants in Question

Story at-a-glance -

  • Toxic flame-retardant chemicals (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs) are widely used in foam furniture cushions, carpets, textiles, foam insulation, children’s products and more, despite research showing they may cause neurodevelopmental delays, cancer, and fertility and thyroid problems.
  • Ironically, the chemicals also do little to actually suppress flames compared to non-treated items, and some may even increase the release of toxic gases released into the air during a fire.
  • Following an outpouring of consumer feedback, Gatorade said it would be removing brominated vegetable oil (BVO), which was first patented as a flame retardant, from their products.
  • PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often.

By Dr. Mercola

The average U.S. home contains multiple sources of toxic flame-retardant chemicals (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs), as they're widely used in

  • Carpets and textiles
  • Foam insulation
  • Polyurethane foam furnishings
  • Electronics and plastics
  • Motor vehicles

They outgas into your home regularly and are commonly found in household dust, where they are inhaled. PBDEs are also found in various foods, including wild and farm-raised fish and the most "pure" food of all, breast milk.

While the chemical industry maintains that these chemicals keep flames from engulfing your home as quickly, giving you valuable time to escape, the reality is that they have at best, questionable effectiveness, while exposing you and your children to undeniably toxic substances.

Health Risks from Flame-Retardant Chemicals Exposed

PBDEs resemble the molecular structure of PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development. Like PCBs, even though certain PBDEs have been banned in some U.S. states and the European Union, they persist in the environment and accumulate in your body – and often exist in products imported from other countries.

Higher exposures to PBDEs have been linked to decreased fertility,1 which could be in part because the chemicals may mimic and therefore disrupt your thyroid hormones. Research has suggested PBDEs can lead to decreases in TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone).2

When present with normal T4 levels, low TSH is typically a sign that your thyroid is being disrupted and you are developing hyperthyroidism, which can have significant ramifications both for you and your unborn child if you're pregnant.

As for cancer, one type of PBDE (decaBDE) is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while the others remain largely untested.

A flame-retardant chemical known as chlorinated tris (TDCPP) was removed from children's pajamas in the 1970s amid concerns that it may cause cancer, but now it's a ubiquitous addition to couch cushions across the United States. It can easily migrate from the foam and into household dust, which children often pick up on their hands and transfer into their mouths.

A recent study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley also revealed that both in utero and childhood PBDE exposures were associated with neurodevelopmental delays, including decreased attention, fine motor coordination, and cognition in school-age children.3

Flame Retardants May Not Even be Effective – and May Make Fires Deadlier

The chemical industry likes to downplay the proven health risks of these toxic chemicals by claiming that they can save lives in the event of a fire. But can they, really? In the CNN video above, you can see a comparison of two burning chairs, one treated with flame-retardant chemicals and one without. In less than a minute, the differences in visible flames between the two chairs are minimal. Inez Tenenbaum, chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, testified before the Senate that:

"The fire-retardant foams did not offer a practically significant greater level of open flame safety than the untreated foams."

Andrew Mcguire of the Trauma Foundation also reported to CNN that flame retardants put into furniture foam are not effective because the foam is not ignited by a match, open flame or cigarette. Instead, it's the fabric that ignites first, and the flames from the burning fabric overwhelm the flame-retardant chemicals.

Yet another study found that certain flame-retardant chemicals (halogen-based flame retardants) actually increase the amounts of toxic carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide gas released into the air during a fire.4 Inhalation of these gasses, not burns, is actually the leading cause of death in fires!

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Chemical Industry Tugs on Legislators' Heartstrings Using Phony Stories

Dr. David Heimback, a burn expert and star witness for the manufacturers of flame retardants, told the tragic story of a 7-week-old baby who was burned in a fire and died as a result, three weeks later, after suffering immensely. The fire was said to have been started by a candle that ignited a pillow that lacked flame retardant chemicals, where the baby lay. The story was heard by California lawmakers, who were deciding on a bill that could have reduced the use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture.

The problem, as we detailed in a previous article, was that the entire story was a clever hoax, a complete fabrication, from beginning to end. It turns out other tiny patients the doctor had described in testimony supporting toxic flame retardant materials didn't exist either. According to the Chicago Tribune:5

"...[Dr. David] Heimbach's passionate testimony about the baby's death made the long-term health concerns about flame retardants voiced by doctors, environmentalists and even firefighters sound abstract and petty. But there was a problem with his testimony: It wasn't true.

Records show there was no dangerous pillow or candle fire. The baby he described didn't exist. Neither did the 9-week-old patient who Heimbach told California legislators died in a candle fire in 2009. Nor did the 6-week-old patient who he told Alaska lawmakers was fatally burned in her crib in 2010.

Heimbach is not just a prominent burn doctor. He is a star witness for the manufacturers of flame retardants. His testimony, the Tribune found, is part of a decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded the furniture and electronics in American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals linked to cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility."

Clearly, when it comes to making money many industries throw ethics and integrity out the window, and the chemical industry is a perfect example of this. Globally, flame-retardant chemicals gross more than $4 billion a year ... and despite the growing proof of health risks, and the fact that their actual value in saving lives is highly questionable, the industry is fighting tooth and nail to not lose one penny.

Gatorade Plans to Remove Flame Retardant From Sports Drink

Following an outpouring of consumer feedback, including an online petition that has more than 200,000 supporters, Gatorade said it would be removing brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from their products. BVO was first patented by chemical companies as a flame retardant. The chemical is presently banned in food throughout Europe and Japan, but BVO has been added to about 10 percent of sodas in North America for decades, even though it has resulted in soda-drinkers needing medical attention for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders – all symptoms of overexposure to bromine.

Studies suggest that BVO can build up in human tissues, and animal studies have found it causes reproductive and behavioral problems in large doses. Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) is vegetable oil, derived from corn or soy, bonded with the element bromine. It's added as an emulsifier, to prevent the flavoring from separating and floating to the surface.

Bromines are known endocrine disruptors, and are part of the halide family, a group of elements that includes fluorine, chlorine and iodine. What makes it so dangerous is that it competes for the same receptors that are used to capture iodine. If you are exposed to a lot of bromine, your body will not hold on to the iodine that it needs. And iodine affects every tissue in your body, especially your nervous system, not just your thyroid. While Gatorade has plans to pull the ingredient from its products within the next few months, BVO can still be found in other beverages like Mountain Dew, Squirt, Fanta Orange and Fresca Original Citrus.

Flame Retardants in Your Couch, Mattress, Baby's Carseat and More...

It's quite difficult to avoid these toxic chemicals because of their abundant use in household goods and even in the foam insulation used in your walls. Research published in Environmental Science & Technology revealed that 85 percent of couch foam samples tested contained chemical flame retardants.6 The samples came from more than 100 couches purchased from 1985 to 2010.

As of July 1, 2007, all U.S. mattresses are required to be highly flame retardant, to the extent that they won't catch on fire if exposed to a blowtorch. This means that the manufacturers are dousing them with highly toxic flame-retardant chemicals like PBDEs, which do NOT have to be disclosed in any way.

And, even though children are among those most at risk from PBDEs' ability to disrupt and harm development, products intended for kids and babies are also those most likely to be doused in flame-retardant chemicals. For instance, such chemicals were recently detected in 60 percent of 2011 car seats tested by The Ecology Center,7 most likely in the polyurethane foam. A separate study in Environmental Science & Technology8 also detected flame-retardant chemicals in 80 percent of the following children's products tested:

Nursing pillows Baby carriers Car seats
Changing table pads High chairs Strollers
Bassinets Portable cribs Walkers
Baby tub inserts and bath slings Glider rockers Sleeping wedges


Since these toxins are not chemically bound to the plastics, foam, fabrics and other materials to which they're added, they easily leach out into your home where they accumulate in household dust9 – and are also contaminating air, soil and waterways during their manufacture, use and degradation in landfills.

Tips for Reducing Your Exposure to Flame-Retardant Chemicals

In case you're wondering why there are so many of these toxic chemicals in use, it's largely due to California Technical Bulletin 117, which requires furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small flame without igniting. Because of California's economic importance, the requirement has essentially become a national standard.

U.S. building codes established in the 1970s also require insulation to pass the Steiner Tunnel test, which measures how quickly the material burns through. Manufacturers typically use flame retardants to pass this requirement. The good news is that California is reportedly revising their flammability standards to help cut back on the use of flame-retardant chemicals, with a proposal expected in the spring. Until these chemicals are removed from use entirely, tips you can use to reduce your exposure to PBDEs around your home include:10

  • Be especially careful with polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses and pillows, as these are most likely to contain PBDEs. If you have any of these in your home, inspect them carefully and replace ripped covers and/or any foam that appears to be breaking down. Also avoid reupholstering furniture by yourself as the reupholstering process increases your risk of exposure.
  • 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, and use a HEPA filter vacuum to clean up.
  • You probably also have older sources of the PBDEs known as Deca in your home as well, and these are so toxic they are banned in several states. Deca PBDEs can be found in electronics like TVs, cell phones, kitchen appliances, fans, toner cartridges and more. It's a good idea to wash your hands after handling such items, especially before eating, and at the very least be sure you don't let infants mouth any of these items (like your TV remote control or cell phone).
  • As you replace PBDE-containing items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool and cotton.
  • Look for organic and "green" building materials, carpeting, baby items, mattresses and upholstery, which will be free from these toxic chemicals and help reduce your overall exposure. Furniture products filled with cotton, wool or polyester tend to be safer than chemical-treated foam; some products also state that they are "flame-retardant free."
  • PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often.