By Dr. Mercola
Fear of fire is primal. No one wants to burn to death. This is undoubtedly why it's so difficult to repeal laws relating to the use of fire retardant chemicals—even though experiments show they do not work... and worse, they're actually exposing you to potent toxins.
In fact, flame-retardant chemicals have been linked to serious health risks, including infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, reduced IQ scores and behavioral problems in children, hormone disruptions, and various forms of cancer.
Still, the very idea that fire retardant chemicals might save your life, or the life of someone you love, is a powerful one. And chemical companies are cashing in on this idea, even though it does not hold up to scrutiny.
The featured HBO documentary, Toxic Hot Seat1 unravels the toxic truth of flame retardants, revealing many disturbing facts about these allegedly "life-saving" chemicals.
Flame Retardants Have Been Proven Harmful
Many studies have proven that flame retardant chemicals are highly toxic, whether they're on fire or not.
About 90 percent of seating cushions are made from polyurethane foam, which is highly flammable. California was the first US state to enact a law that required foam used in upholstered furniture to withstand a 12-second exposure to an open flame.
Eventually, this became a de facto law nationwide, and today, virtually all furniture contains high amounts—as much as several pounds worth—of flame-retardant chemicals.
But these chemicals don't "stay put" in the furniture. They migrate out, and collect in house dust. As a result, an estimated 90 percent of Americans have some level of flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies. Long-term residents of California, which was the first state to use flame retardant chemicals, tend to have far higher levels.
This is no small concern. Most recently, flame retardant chemicals were identified as one of 17 "high priority" chemical groups that should be avoided to reduce your risk of breast cancer.2, 3
Flame retardants also produce more toxic smoke when they burn, and California female firefighters aged 40 to 50 are six times more likely to develop breast cancer than the national average.
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.
What many do not realize is that a) an object treated with flame retardant chemicals CAN still catch fire, and b) when it does, it will give off higher levels of toxic carbon monoxide, soot, and smoke than an untreated object. Ironically, these three things are more likely to kill you than a burn might, which means flame-retardant chemicals may actually make fires more deadly.
Children Pay a High Price for the Unproven 'Safety' of Flame Retardants
Flame retardant chemicals are known to accumulate in breast milk, and can be transferred to your baby in utero. This is particularly bad news, as recent research4, 5 reveals that children born of women who were exposed to high levels of flame retardant chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) during pregnancy, had on average a 4.5 point decrease in IQ. Such children are also more prone to hyperactivity disorders.
PBDEs were voluntarily withdrawn from the American market in 2004, but there are still many products on the market that were manufactured before that time. These products can continue to release PBDEs into your environment.
Do Flame Retardants Really Work?
Adding insult to injury, there's virtually no evidence to suggest that these chemicals actually work when it comes to saving your life should a fire occur.
According to the chemical industry, fire-retardant furniture increases your escape time 15-fold in the case of a fire. This claim originated 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 revealed in Toxic Hot Seat, 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.
How did we get into this situation? As revealed in the film, Big Tobacco actually played a key role... 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 front group called the National Association of State Fire Marshals.
The group pushed for federal standards for fire-retardant furniture, and in 1975, California became the first state to enact such fire standards (Technical Bulletin 117).
Another front group called "Citizens for Fire Safety," is in actuality a trade association for the three largest manufacturers of flame retardant chemicals—NOT a coalition of concerned citizens, which is how they portray themselves.
This group has also been working to protect the chemical industry from legislation that might cut into their business, and have helped expand the commercial use of flame retardant chemicals into an ever-greater number of products. All of this has been done in the name of "fire safety"—a benefit that just doesn't seem to hold up to closer scrutiny.
What's worse, while the original author of the fire standard had specified that any chemical used had to be proven safe for human health, this requirement was removed and the law went into effect without this language...
Chemical manufacturers could have taken it upon themselves to ensure their products were safe, but true to form, they didn't. And we're now paying the price, in the form of developmental delays, reductions in IQ, fertility issues, and elevated cancer rates.
Regulatory Changes in California May Improve Public Safety Nationwide
Since its passage, 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 defeated them each time—until now!
As of January 1, 2014, new regulations (TB-117-2013) kicked into effect that will hopefully make toxic flame retardants less prominent in the average home. As reported by Scientific American:6
"The change does not prevent manufacturers from using flame retardants, but it does make it feasible to avoid their use while still clearing regulations. The new requirements state that upholstered furniture sold in the state must not continue to 'smolder' some 45 minutes after a lit cigarette is placed on it—protecting against a cigarette carelessly dropped on a couch rather than a lit candle.
Manufacturers can meet the requirement without the use of fire retardants, by using fabrics that better withstand such exposures or by lining furniture with a fire barrier such as polyester batting. Furniture manufacturers nation-wide have ensured that their wares met the stringent California flammability standards for the past few decades, so the new requirements are expected to have ripple effects across the industry that will trigger a reduction in the use of flame retardant in our home furnishings."
Another reason the political inertia was finally broken was because the chemical industry's "star witness," Dr. David Heimback, who testified during previous efforts to amend the regulation, was found to have lied. A burn expert, Dr. Heimback told California lawmakers heart-wrenching stories about babies dying after suffering horrific burns in fires started in non-treated items. Alas, upon further investigation, it was discovered that he made all these cases up!
The fight is far from over, however. In early January, Chemtura Corp., a leading manufacturer of flame retardant chemicals, filed a lawsuit7 against California, challenging the regulatory changes. The trial will begin on August 29, 2014 in Sacramento Superior court.
There's also the toxic legacy of four decades' worth of flame retardants to contend with. As discussed in a previous Huffington Post article,8 what are we to do with the tens of millions of toxic sofas, chairs, and baby products that have already been made and sold? At present, there's no known method to safely dispose of these chemically-treated products. No matter where they end up, they will continue to pose a health and environmental hazard, as these chemicals also accumulate in the food chain.
Washington State Is Also Pushing for Protective Legislation
Be aware that while California's new flammability standard is a step in the right direction, it does NOT prevent manufacturers from continuing to use flame retardants. As noted by Randi Abrams-Caras of the Washington Toxics Coalition:9
"It's terrific that there's no longer a law that requires [flame retardant chemicals], but what we need is a law that says they can't be used."
Such legislation is currently under consideration in Washington State,10 where advocates are pushing for the "Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act." Sponsored by Senator Sharon Nelson and Representative Kevin Van De Wege, this Act would:
- Ban six forms of tris flame retardants (TDCPP and TCEP) in children's products and home furniture beginning July 1, 2015
- Prevent makers of children's products and home furniture from replacing tris with other toxic flame retardants that have been identified by Ecology as a concern for children's health beginning July 1, 2014
- Ensure compliance with the law by allowing the WA State Department of Ecology to request certificates of compliance from products makers
Where Are Flame Retardants Hiding in Your Home?
Of greatest concern are polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005. This includes a majority of upholstered furniture, mattresses, and pillows. The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) guide11 to PBDEs contains even more details about products in which these toxic chemicals might be lurking. Older carpet padding is another major source of flame-retardant PBDEs, so take precautions when removing old carpet.
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. 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
Also use extra caution when purchasing baby products. In one test, about 80 percent of the baby items tested were 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
Protect Your Family by 'Going Green'
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.
In California, furnishings that are in compliance with the new flammability standards will carry a "TB 117-2013" tag indicating its compliance. Look for this tag, or ask the retailer whether a particular piece contains flame retardant chemicals. The Green Science Policy Institute has created a flyer12 summarizing the new flammability standard, and offers a list of retailers in and outside of California that sell toxin-free furnishings. The fewer toxins you surround yourself with inside your home, the less your chance of succumbing to the harmful effects of toxic overload.