By Dr. Mercola
Did you know that items you come into contact with every day, such as your couch cushions, your carpeting, and your mattress, might be exposing you to highly toxic compounds?
In most cases, they will contain flame-retardant chemicals that have been linked to serious health risks like infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, reduced IQ scores and behavioral problems in children, hormone disruptions, and various forms of cancer.
In fact, flame retardant chemicals were recently identified as one of 17 "high priority" chemical groups that should be avoided to1, 2
Exposure to Flame Retardants in Utero Can Lead to IQ Reduction
Recent research3 also shows that children whose mothers were exposed to flame retardant chemicals during pregnancy have lower IQ, and are more prone to hyperactivity disorders.
The researchers initially measured the levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in women at 16 weeks of pregnancy. The health of the children was then monitored until the age of five. As reported by The Vancouver Sun:4
"[W]omen with a high level of PBDEs in early pregnancy, when the fetal brain is developing, was associated with a 4.5 IQ decrement, which is comparable with the impact of environmental lead exposure. The researchers say their results confirm earlier studies that found PBDEs may be developmental neurotoxicants...
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) added two of three existing commercial PBDE formulas to the list of banned Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) due to concerns over toxicity in wildlife and mammals in 2009.
While PBDEs were voluntarily withdrawn from the US market in 2004, products manufactured before then may still contain PBDEs, which can continue to be released into the environment and accumulate via indoor dust."
Adding a level of frustration to the equation, there's virtually no evidence to suggest that these chemicals actually work when it comes to saving your life if there's a fire.
In fact, tests show not only do they not work, but they actually release toxins when they burn and may be more far more likely to kill you than the fire itself! For a demonstration of just how useless flame retardant furniture is, see the featured video.
Flame Retardants Are All Around You
The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) guide5 to PBDEs recommends being particularly mindful of polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses, and pillows. 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 flame-retardant PBDEs, so take precautions when removing old carpet.
As you replace PBDE-containing items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, and cotton. Also look for organic and "green" building materials, carpeting, baby items, and upholstery, which will be free from these toxic chemicals and help reduce your overall exposure.
Be particularly cautious when purchasing baby products. In one test, about 80 percent of the baby items tested was found to contain flame retardant chemicals. Sixty percent of car seats produced in 2011 were also found to have them. Other baby items that may harbor toxic flame retardants include:
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
While the featured study focused on PBDEs, there are many other hazardous chemicals used as flame retardants, and it's highly unlikely that any of them would have a nonexistent health impact.
One such chemical, chlorinated tris (TDCPP), was removed from children's pajamas in the 1970s due to its cancer-causing potential. Despite that, it's now commonly used in couch cushions! So while your child may not be sleeping in it, everyone in your family may still be exposed to this cancer hazard via your furniture. Moreover, while manufacturers have indeed stopped using some of these flame retardant chemicals, they're replacing them with newer chemicals—chemicals that AGAIN have not been adequately tested for safety.
Do Flame Retardants Really Work?
The chemical industry insists that flame retardant chemicals save lives, but where's the real evidence for that? Last year, I wrote about the deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of fire retardant chemicals. As reported in an investigative series "Playing With Fire" by the Chicago Tribune:6
"The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world. The toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home, packed into couches, chairs and many other products. Two powerful industries — Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers — waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of these chemicals, which don't even work as promised."
According to the chemical industry, fire-retardant furniture increases your escape time 15-fold in the case of a fire. 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. As noted in the featured video, tests have shown that the most widely used flame-retardant chemicals actually provide no meaningful benefit in case of a fire, while increasing the amounts of toxic chemicals in the smoke.
The video also discusses the primary industry front group responsible for perpetuating the myth that flame retardant chemicals save lives. The group, called "Citizens for Fire Safety," is in actuality a trade association for the three largest manufacturers of flame retardant chemicals in the world—NOT a coalition of concerned citizens, which is how they portray themselves. This group is hard at work doing two things: 1) protecting the chemical industry from legislation that might cut into their business, and 2) expanding the commercial use of flame retardant chemicals into an ever-greater number of products—all in the name of "fire safety"—a benefit that just doesn't seem to hold up to closer scrutiny.
Shocking Facts About Flame Retardants
The video above is a trailer for the HBO documentary, Toxic Hot Seat,7 the full version of which I will post in full in the near future. It is well worth watching if you want to learn more about the toxic truth of flame retardants.
- Numerous studies have proven their harm. It's estimated that 90 percent of Americans have some level of flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies, and the chemicals are also known to accumulate in breast milk. This alone is disturbing, since studies have repeatedly linked them to human health risks, including hormone disruptions, lower IQ scores, behavioral problems in children, and various cancers.
Case in point: female firefighters aged 40 to 50 are six times more likely to develop breast cancer than the national average, likely due to California's early use of flame-retardant chemicals. Firefighters of both genders also have higher rates of cancer, in part because of the high levels of dioxins and furans they're exposed to when flame-retardant chemicals burn.
- Flame retardants produce more toxic smoke. If an object doused in flame retardants catches fire (yes, they can still catch fire), it gives off higher levels of carbon monoxide, soot, and smoke than untreated objects. Ironically, these three things are more likely to kill a person in a fire than burns, which means flame-retardant chemicals may actually make fires more deadly.
- Big Tobacco was instrumental in the spread of flame-retardant chemicals. Flame-retardant chemicals were developed in the 1970s, when 40 percent of Americans smoked and cigarettes were a major cause of fires. The tobacco industry, under increasing pressure to make fire-safe cigarettes, resisted the push for self-extinguishing cigarettes and instead created a fake front group called the National Association of State Fire Marshals. The group pushed for federal standards for fire-retardant furniture.
- California's misguided fire safety law led to countrywide use of inadequately tested chemicals. In 1975, California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) was passed. It 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 became more or less a national standard.
While there may be benefits when a state law impacts the rest of the country (I'm thinking of GMO labeling for example), there are also risks if the law is poorly written, or otherwise botched in favor of protecting industry profits. As reported by Rodale News:8 "Sadly, though the original author of TB117 had specifically included language requiring that any chemical used to make furniture fire resistant be safe for human health, politicians removed that language before the law went into effect."
- The chemical industry has spent millions to keep TB117 in place. Numerous bills in California have been introduced that would update TB117 to state that toxic chemicals were no longer required for furniture, but the deep-pocketed chemical industry has defeated them each time. The industry even went so far as to hire Dr. David Heimback, a burn expert and star witness for the manufacturers of flame retardants, to tell the tragic story of a seven-week-old baby who was burned in a fire and died 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 complete fabrication, from beginning to end!
Six Other Chemicals Linked to Brain Disorders in Children
Related research has identified a number of other toxic chemicals that need to be restricted in order to protect children's health. The study, published in Lancet Neurology9, 10 in March, notes that industrial chemicals are "among the known causes" for neurodevelopmental disabilities such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and other cognitive impairments. In 2006, the team identified five industrial chemicals as developmental neurotoxicants: lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, and toluene. Now, they've added six more to the list of chemicals known to cause brain deficits in children:
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) Fluoride Manganese Chlorpyrifos Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane Tetrachloroethylene
According to the authors, it's likely there are many more neurotoxic chemicals that have yet to be identified. "To control the pandemic of developmental neurotoxicity, we propose a global prevention strategy," the researchers write.11 "Untested chemicals should not be presumed to be safe to brain development, and chemicals in existing use and all new chemicals must therefore be tested for developmental neurotoxicity. To coordinate these efforts and to accelerate translation of science into prevention, we propose the urgent formation of a new international clearinghouse."
Fluoride Again Identified as a Neurotoxin
I find it interesting that fluoride was identified as a major culprit here, yet this has not received any major media attention. The debate over the dangers of fluoride has been ongoing for more than six decades, despite the fact that study after study has confirmed that fluoride is a dangerous, toxic poison that bioaccumulates in your body while being ineffective at preventing dental decay. Now it's been pin-pointed yet again as a neurotoxin that children should be protected from—not exposed to in every sip of water. Besides this one, there are 25 other studies showing that fluoride reduces IQ in children. Approximately 100 animal studies have also linked fluoride to brain damage. This includes such effects as:12
Reduction in nicotinic acetylcholine receptors Damage to the hippocampus Formation of beta-amyloid plaques (the classic brain abnormality in Alzheimer's disease) Reduction in lipid content Damage to the Purkinje cells Exacerbation of lesions induced by iodine deficiency Impaired antioxidant defense systems Increased uptake of aluminum Accumulation of fluoride in the pineal gland
One particularly striking animal study13 published in 1995 showed that fluoride ingestion had a profound influence on the animals' brains and altered behavior. Pregnant rats given fluoride produced hyperactive offspring. And animals given fluoride after birth became apathetic, lethargic "couch potatoes."
Are You Sleeping on a Toxic Mattress?
Of all the items that might serve as your greatest sources of exposure to flame retardant chemicals, your mattress may be of greatest concern since you spend a large amount of your life sleeping on it. As of July 1, 2007, all US mattresses are required to be flame resistant, to the extent that they won't catch on fire if exposed to a blow torch.
Besides PBDEs, other flame-retardant chemicals currently approved for use in mattresses include boric acid, a toxic respiratory irritant used to kill roaches; antimony, a metal that may be more toxic than mercury; and formaldehyde, which causes cancer. Mattress manufacturers are not required to label or disclose which chemicals their mattresses contain. They may even claim that their mattresses are safe, when in reality they are not. To avoid this toxic exposure, I recommend looking for a mattress made of either:
- 100% organic wool, which is naturally flame-resistant. Even if you hold a match to wool, it will self-extinguish in moments. This is why I use one of our wool mattresses, as it's free of these dangerous fire retardants like PBDE
- 100% organic cotton or flannel also tends to be flame-resistant
- Kevlar fibers, the material they make bullet-proof vests out of, which is sufficient to pass the fire safety standards. Stearns and Foster is one brand that sells this type of mattress