Flame Retardants and Cosmetic Chemicals May Jeopardize Your Health

Toxic Chemicals

Story at-a-glance

  • Many flame retardant PBDEs were replaced by organophosphate flame retardants, which have been linked to many of the same health problems as PBDEs, including endocrine disruption and cancer
  • Nail polish is currently being investigated as a possible source of the exposure to the flame retardant TPHP
  • Assessments of toxic chemicals by the Environmental Protection Agency have come to a standstill, courtesy of political wrangling that keeps delaying damning findings


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

Unless you live in some remote wilderness, you’re likely being exposed to a wide variety of chemicals on a daily basis that can compromise your health. One class of chemicals that have become ubiquitous in the US is flame retardants.

In the 1970s, the US implemented fire safety standards that led to more and more products adopting the use of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) to meet the stringent regulations.

PBDEs have a molecular structure similar to that of banned PCBs, the latter of which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and impaired fetal brain development.

And, even though certain PBDEs have since been banned in some US states, they still persist in the environment and accumulate in your body. Tests have revealed that as many as 97 percent of all Americans have significant levels of PBDEs in their blood.

Many harmful chemicals also lurk in personal care products that you apply to your body on a daily basis.

A recent article in Environmental Health Perspectives1 discusses the impact of newer flame retardants and the routes by which people are exposed to these hazardous chemicals—which, surprisingly, may include personal care products.

Hand-to-Mouth Exposures in Adults

In 2005, PBDEs used in foam furniture were voluntarily withdrawn from the US market.2 But were they replaced with harmless chemicals? Hardly.

Many PBDEs were replaced by organophosphate flame retardants such as tris phosphate (TDCIPP), and triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), both of which are now used in a wide variety of consumer goods, including furniture, cars seats, carpet padding, and baby products, just to name a few.

According to the featured article:3

“TDCIPP is listed as a human carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65, and a small human study found evidence that exposure to both TDCIPP and TPHP was associated with altered levels of some hormones and lower sperm concentration.

In vitro and animal data have linked TDCIPP to neurotoxicity and both TDCIPP and TPHP to endocrine disruption.”

A recent study4 looked at how, and to what degree, people were exposed to these chemicals in their homes. A total of 53 men and women participated in the study, and more than 90 percent of them provided dust samples from their home.

Not only did every single dust sample contain both TDCIPPs and TPHPs, metabolites of TPHP and TDCIPP were also found in 91 percent and 83 percent of the urine samples respectively.

Flame Retardants May Hide in Women’s Products

Interestingly, women had nearly twice the urinary levels TPHP metabolites than men, suggesting there must be a hidden route of exposure that women come into contact with more regularly than men... According to study author Heather Stapleton:

“This is a very unusual finding. We haven’t seen that before [for flame retardants], which suggests to us that there is likely exposure through a personal care product.”

Nail polish is currently being investigated as a possible source of the exposure to the flame retardant TPHP.

The study also found that those who had higher levels of organophosphate chemical traces on their hands had higher levels in their urine, suggesting that “hand-to-mouth contact or dermal absorption may be important pathways of exposure to these compounds.”

According to the researchers, frequent hand washing may help reduce some of the exposure, but clearly, your best bet would be to try to determine the sources and eliminate as many of them as possible—especially if you have young children.

Ideally, we all need to start paying attention to the presence of these chemicals, because not only are they bad when ingested or absorbed, they’re also bad for the environment when flushed down the drain...

Chemical Research Ruled by Politics, Not Science

A recent article by The Center for Public Integrity5 (CPI) reveals just how little is being done by the US government to protect you from these chemical hazards, thereby necessitating taking more personal responsibility.

It appears assessments of toxic chemicals by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have come to a standstill, courtesy of political wrangling.

One of the EPA’s responsibilities is to determine which chemicals pose a hazard to human health, and then decide how to protect the public from those chemicals. They may decide to ban the chemical in question, or create more stringent regulations, for example.

However, any such measure will result in a loss of profits for the chemical industry, which is working hard to keep their products on the market—and they have a very powerful political lobby to ensure business keeps going as usual.

One of the tactics the chemical industry uses is simply to seed doubt when questions about potential hazards arise.

It’s quite difficult to tease out exactly how much of a toxic chemical one must be exposed to before succumbing to cancer or some other malady, and the chemical industry uses that fact to argue for the chemical’s safety.

This is a strategy that was originally used with great success by the tobacco industry. Another political ploy being used today is o delay scientific findings. According to CPI reporter David Heath:

“Congressional investigators found that the Bush White House put many of the EPA scientific findings on hold. In fact investigators said the delays were so endless that the scientific research being done at the EPA was virtually obsolete.

Things would go over to the Bush administration and they'd ask a bunch of questions and they'd have to go back and start all over again...

[T]he Obama administration came in with a plan to fix it. And that called basically for doing many more chemicals assessments and to do them a lot faster. But that plan has actually failed. In the last three years the EPA has actually done fewer chemical assessments than ever before.”

Damning Assessment of Arsenic Halted and ‘Buried’

The EPA started working on a toxicology assessment of formaldehyde in 1998, and it’s still not published. Why? According to Heath, Louisiana senator David Vitter managed to postpone the assessment by threatening to block a key EPA appointment. Ditto for the EPA’s assessment of arsenic.

The agency began assessing arsenic around 2003. Then, in 2011, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson inserted language into a committee report attached to a spending bill that delayed the release of that assessment. And even though the language is not legally binding, the EPA is strongly advised to follow it, and it does.

Shockingly, Heath reports that the EPA had determined arsenic is 17 times more potent a carcinogen than previously thought, yet these findings never made it to publication.  

“What that meant was that even people drinking the legal limit of arsenic6 in drinking water were likely to get cancer from it. In fact they came up with a calculation that was 730 out of 100,000 people would get cancer from it,” Heath says.

“[A]ll chemical assessments right now have been delayed. Congressman Simpson acted on behalf of two pesticide companies who make a weed killer containing arsenic.

Those companies hired a lobbyist named Charlie Grizzle, who had been a former EPA official and knew the ropes. At the same time he was also working as a lobbyist for the formaldehyde industry. And at the same time he was lobbying against the arsenic assessment, he was lobbying to delay all chemical assessments, about 50 in all.”

Chemicals Abound in Personal Care Products

Chemicals like formaldehyde and arsenic can be found in many products—some of which you may be ingesting or applying to your body on a regular basis. Nail polish, for example—which is now under investigation to determine the presence of flame retardants—typically contain formaldehyde along with toxic dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and toluene. Even Johnsons & Johnsons Baby Shampoo—a classic bathroom staple for most families with small children—contained formaldehyde when sold in the US (but not the version sold in other countries).

Last year, after years of applied pressure from public health groups, including a boycott, the company announced its famous baby shampoo had been reformulated and would no longer contain formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane7 (yet another chemical known for its toxic effects). Cosmetics are a major source of potentially toxic exposure for women.8

Tests suggest you can absorb five pounds of chemicals each year from your daily makeup routine alone. Many of these chemicals have been directly linked to cancer or are known to cause damage to your brain, reproductive system, and other organs. On average, women apply 126 different ingredients to their skin daily and 90 percent of them have never been evaluated for safety. A handful of the most hazardous ones include:

  • Paraben, a chemical found in deodorants and other cosmetics that has been shown to mimic the action of the female hormone estrogen, which can drive the growth of human breast tumors.
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate, a surfactant, detergent and emulsifier used in thousands of cosmetic products, as well as in industrial cleaners. It’s present in nearly all shampoos, scalp treatments, hair color and bleaching agents, toothpastes, body washes and cleansers, make-up foundations, liquid hand soaps, laundry detergents, and bath oils/bath salts. The real problem with SLES/SLS is that the manufacturing process (ethoxylation) results in SLES/SLS being contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, a carcinogenic by-product.
  • Phthalates are plasticizing ingredients that have been linked to birth defects in the reproductive system of boys and lower sperm-motility in adult men, among other problems. Be aware that phthalates are often hidden on shampoo labels under the generic term “fragrance.”
  • Methylisothiazolinone (MIT), a chemical used in shampoo to prevent bacteria from developing, which may have detrimental effects on your nervous system.
  • Toluene, made from petroleum or coal tar, and found in most synthetic fragrances. Chronic exposure linked to anemia, lowered blood cell count, liver or kidney damage, and may affect a developing fetus.

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Perfume—A Cornucopia of Toxic Ingredients

Perfumes are another common route of toxic exposure, and although not discussed as frequently, the same applies to men’s colognes and body sprays as well. Of particular concern when you’re reading labels is the generic term “fragrance,” or “parfum.” These are catchall terms for some 10,000 different ingredients, most of which have not been tested for safety. As noted above, phthalates also hide under these terms.  A recent article in Time magazine9 addressing this issue states:

“Phthalates are wonderful for cosmetics because they make things smear really well... When it comes to perfume, phthalates keep all the liquid’s different elements suspended and evenly distributed... So what’s the problem? Some phthalates—namely one called diethyl phthalate (DEP)—are shown to disrupt our hormones, including testosterone. That’s a big concern for pregnant women, [Dr.] Patisaul says. ‘There’s evidence connecting phthalates to developmental disorders, especially among newborn boys’...

More research has linked DEP to poor lung function and myriad sperm issues, from lower counts to reduced motility... Which means men—particularly adolescents who fumigate their still-developing bodies with aerosolized body sprays—could be at risk... What isn’t clear: Just how much phthalate exposure is too much. ‘It’s not like we can deliberately expose a bunch of pregnant women or boys to phthalates and see what happens,’ Patisaul says. ‘So coming up with hard proof is difficult.’ That same dilemma helped cigarette companies dodge health regulators for decades.”

These risks are particularly pronounced in the US, because here, chemicals are assumed safe until proven harmful. Many other countries place the burden of proof on the chemical producer. Subsequently, perfume ingredients that are banned in Europe are still used in American products. France, known for its penchant for perfumes, also has some of the tightest regulations on cosmetic ingredients of any nation, although that doesn’t mean perfumes manufactured in France are 100 percent safe either.

How to Reduce Your Exposure to Toxic Chemicals

There are tens of thousands of potentially toxic chemicals lurking in your home, so the most comprehensive recommendation I can give you is to opt for organic or “green” alternatives no matter what product is under consideration—be it a piece of furniture, clothing, kids toys, cleaning product, or personal care item. This is by far the easiest route, as manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use to make their products comply with safety regulations, such as fire safety regulations. Your mattress, for example, may be soaked in toxic flame retardants, but you will not find the chemicals listed on any of the mattress labels.

You can certainly ask what type of fire retardants the product contains, but you may not always get an answer. And, while you likely won't find PBDEs in newer foam products, there are a number of other fire-retardant chemicals that can be just as detrimental to your health, including antimony, formaldehyde, boric acid, and other brominated chemicals. Cleaning products and cosmetics are also notorious for not disclosing all ingredients, as many concoctions are protected as trade secrets. Below are some general guidelines to consider that can help reduce your exposure to toxins in your home:

  • Be 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.
  • If in doubt, you can have a sample of your polyurethane foam cushions tested for free to be sure. This is particularly useful for items you already have around your home, as it will help you determine which harmful products need replacing.

  • 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 and upholstery, which will be free from these toxic chemicals. 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.
  • Look for a mattress made of either 100% organic wool, which is naturally flame-resistant; 100% organic cotton or flannel; or Kevlar fibers, the material they make bulletproof vests out of, which is sufficient to pass the fire safety standards. Stearns and Foster is one brand that sells this type of mattress.
  • When purchasing personal care products, look for the genuine USDA Organic Seal.  If you can't pronounce it, you probably don't want to put it on your body. Ask yourself, "Would I eat this?" One way to clean up your beauty regimen is to simplify your routine and make your own products. Coconut oil, for example, can replace a whole slew of products, from skin moisturizers to hair care.
  • EWG’s Skin Deep database10 can help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
  • Look for products that are fragrance-free. This applies to personal care products and household cleaning products alike. If you want a scent, consider using a pure essential oil.
  • Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic, since chemicals can leach out of plastics and into the contents. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a serious concern. Make sure any plastic container is BPA-free.


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