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Flame Retardants Cause Chemical-Induced Insulin Resistance, Studies Find

Story at-a-glance -

  • Flame-retardant chemicals have been linked to serious health risks, including infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, reduced IQ, hormone disruptions, and various forms of cancer
  • 90 percent of Americans have flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies; tests reveal that many have at least six different types of toxic flame retardants in their system
  • A coalition has created a petition asking the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban all organohalogens, the most commonly used class of flame retardants

By Dr. Mercola

Flame-retardant chemicals have been linked to serious health risks, including infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays,1 reduced IQ and behavioral problems in children,2 hormone disruptions,3 and various forms of cancer.

In fact, flame retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were recently identified as one of 17 "high priority" chemical groups that should be avoided to reduce your breast cancer risk.4

Still, the idea that fire retardant chemicals might save your life, or the life ofsomeone you love, is a powerful one. And chemical companies are cashing in on this idea, even though it does not hold up to scrutiny.

In the video above, you can see a comparison of two burning chairs; one treated with flame-retardant chemicals and one without. Within less than one minute, the differences in visible flames between the two chairs are minimal.

In short, flame retardants don’t work. Adding insult to injury, you’re actually more likely to die from toxic smoke inhalation when flame retardant furniture burns. Fire fighters are also at heightened risk for cancer from the repeated exposure to these toxic fumes, and many firefighters have started to speak out against the use of flame retardant chemicals.5

Flame Retardants Cause Chemical-Induced Insulin Resistance

Previous studies have shown that an estimated 90 percent of Americans have flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies. Worse yet, recent tests6 have revealed that many Americans have no less than six different types of toxic flame retardants in their system.

Researchers7 have also noted that American mothers have levels of flame retardants in their breast milk that are about two orders of magnitude greater than in European countries where these chemicals are not permitted. Children, in turn, have been found to have levels of flame retardants that are as much as five times higher than their mother’s...8

Such bioaccumulation can have serious health consequences over the course of a lifetime, although health problems may not be readily attributable to day-to-day chemical exposure. For example, according to researchers at the University of Hampshire,9 flame retardants cause liver and metabolic problems that can result in insulin resistance and associated health problems.

It’s rather unlikely that anyone would tie their insulin resistance, obesity, high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol ratios to exposure to flame retardants, considering that this health problem is typically thought to hinge on excess sugar consumption. As explained in the University’s news release:

“[R]ats exposed to polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, experienced a disruption in their metabolism that resulted in the development of metabolic obesity and enlarged livers.

‘Despite the plethora of resources devoted to understanding the roles of diet and exercise in the obesity epidemic, this epidemic continues to escalate, suggesting that other environmental factors may be involved.

At the biochemical level there is a growing body of experimental evidence suggesting certain environmental chemicals, or ‘obesogens’, could disrupt the body's metabolism and contribute to the obesity epidemic,’ [lead researcher Gale Carey, professor of nutrition] said...

The cause of the flame retardant-induced insulin resistance is unknown but one possibility is the suppression of a key metabolic enzyme  phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase, or PEPCK in the liver.

Carey and her students found that the activity of PEPCK, which is responsible for sugar and fat metabolism, dropped by nearly 50 percent in livers of rats exposed to flame retardants for just one month, compared to controls.” [Emphasis mine]

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Are Your Electronics Messing with Your Metabolism?

Another study10 evaluating the effects of the flame retardants tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) and tetrachlorobisphenol A (TCBPA)—both of which are commonly used in electronic devices—came to similar findings.

In this study, zebra fish that were exposed to relatively low levels of the flame retardant chemicals grew longer and heavier than their unexposed siblings in the control group.

In electronics, such as computers, cellphones, televisions, tablets, video game consoles, etc, flame retardant chemicals are used to prevent fire due to overheating.

But the chemicals do not necessarily “stay put.” They migrate out and collect in dust, which is one reason why young children who spend more time on the floor tend to have higher levels of the chemicals in their system.

Toxic ‘Whack-a-Mole’ Game Played with Flame Retardants

As reported by the Huffington Post,11 scientists are starting to take a stronger stance against flame retardants as a group, noting that addressing chemicals one-by-one just prolongs the endangerment of public health indefinitely:

"‘We're playing toxic whack-a-mole,’ said Arlene Blum, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and executive director of the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute.

‘When after a great deal of research and testing, a chemical is found to be harmful, then the tendency is to replace it with as similar a chemical as possible. That's the easiest thing to do.’ History has shown, however, that the substitutes may prove equally harmful.”

To stop this cycle, a coalition of medical, consumer, and worker safety groups have created a petition12,13 asking the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban all organohalogens, the most commonly used flame retardants found in children's goods, furniture, mattresses, and electronics’ casings. This class of chemicals includes:

  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned in 1977 due to health concerns
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), phased out in 2005 once it was discovered that it was just as hazardous as the PCBs it replaced
  • Tris phosphate (TDCIPP), listed as a human carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65,14 has also been linked to heart disease, obesity and cancer15
  • Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), associated with altered hormone levels, reduced sperm concentrations, and endocrine disruption16
  • Firemaster 550, which replaced PBDEs that were removed from the market,17 has since been linked to heart disease, obesity and cancer18

Addressing organohalogens as a class, Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of preventative medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine says:19 "The evidence is quite convincing that exposure in the womb to these flame retardants causes brain damage, lower IQs and persistent behavior problems in children.” Exposure during early childhood can also be significant. In one test, flame retardant chemicals were detected in 80 percent of children's products tested,20 including nursing pillows, baby carriers, and sleeping wedges.

Chemical Industry Accused of Writing Its Own Laws

One thing is clear: we cannot trust the chemical industry to just do what is right for public health. The industry has a long history of covering up hazards and lobbying to keep dangerous substances on the market, for no other reason than the fact that it’s highly profitable. Questions have also been raised about The Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, as this bill appears to have originated in the offices of the American Chemistry Council, the leading trade organization for the chemical industry.

As reported by San Francisco Gate:21

“It’s a high-stakes bill: If it becomes law, it would be the first update in 39 years of federal regulation of toxic substances.... The draft bill, obtained by Hearst Newspapers, is in the form of a Microsoft Word document. Rudimentary digital forensics — going to ‘advanced properties’ in Word — shows the ‘company’ of origin to be the American Chemistry Council. The ACC, as the council is known, is the leading trade organization and lobbyist for the chemical industry. And opponents of the Vitter-Udall bill have pounced on the document’s digital fingerprints to make the point that they believe the bill favors industry far too much... In its current form, the bill is opposed by many environmental, health and labor organizations and several states, because it would gut state chemical regulations....

“‘We’re apparently at the point in the minds of some people in the Congress that laws intended to regulate polluters are now written by the polluters themselves,’ said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group...‘Call me old-fashioned, but a bill to protect the public from harmful chemicals should not be written by chemical industry lobbyists. The voices of our families must not be drowned out by the very industry whose documented harmful impacts must be addressed, or the whole exercise is a sham,’ Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said...”

Senator Boxer has introduced a competing bill—The Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act—that will “guarantee action from the Environmental Protection Agency on hundreds of dangerous chemicals and explicitly direct the agency to address asbestos,” according to a report by The Hill.22 Her bill is co-sponsored by Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.).

Chairman of Mismanaged Chemical Safety Board Resigns

Another agency that has fallen short of its commitment to safety is the US Chemical Safety Board, which is supposed to issue safety recommendations to regulators following industrial accidents. In 2013, the Center for Public Integrity published an article23 criticizing the board for failing to complete more than a dozen important investigations in a timely manner. Now, the chairman of the Chemical Safety Board, Rafael Moure-Eraso, has resigned; a move that was long overdue, according to many. Vanessa Allen Sutherland, chief counsel for the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has been nominated to take over the position as board chairman of the Chemical Safety Board.

“In recent weeks, members of Congress had stepped up cries for the chairman’s ouster... [T]he chairman and ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said the board was “in desperate need of new leadership... Dr. Moure-Eraso’s mismanagement of the CSB, abuse of power, employee retaliation, and lack of honesty in his communications with Congress are among the many reasons why his resignation is the right step for this federal agency,” Center for Public Integrity writes.24

Are You Sleeping on a Toxic Mattress?

While flame retardants can be found in a wide variety of household goods, electronics, and furnishings, their presence in your bedroom may be of particular concern, considering how much time you spend in bed. A related issue is the potential for your bed, including your pillows, comforter, and linens to worsen the air quality in your bedroom. A study25 published in the journal Indoor Air last year reveals that dust particles—including allergens, fungal spores, bacteria, and semi-volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—are readily kicked up from your bed during sleep.

According to the author, you can improve your bedroom’s air quality by improving ventilation, washing your sheets more regularly, and vacuuming your mattress on a weekly basis. The author states:

“Human movements in bed, such as rolling from the prone to supine position, were found to resuspend settled particles, leading to elevations in airborne particle concentration... Resuspension increased with the intensity of a movement... Intake fractions increased as the particle size and ventilation rate decreased... demonstrating that a significant fraction of released particles can be inhaled by sleeping occupants.”

100% Wool—Flame Retardant Benefits Without the Risks of Chemicals

But while poor air quality certainly has its hazards, I think most would agree that toxic off-gassing is a more significant concern. Considering the fact that you spend about one-third of your life in bed, making sure your mattress and bedding is organic and non-toxic is a worthwhile investment. Start with an organic cotton or wool pillow, followed by mattress pad, sheets and comforter. Then, spring for an organic cotton or wool mattress when you can afford it. It is the mattress I personally sleep on.

How can you determine whether your bedding might be a problem? Pay attention to “wrinkle-free” claims, as this usually means they’ve been treated with risky perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). Chemicals added to bedding to increase softness and/or help prevent shrinkage may also emit formaldehyde gas. My personal preference for bedding and mattress is 100% wool, as wool is both naturally flame resistant, and discourages mold, mildew, and dust mites. It also has superior breathability and helps regulate body temperature; is hypoallergenic; and is a sustainable, eco-friendly resource.

Does Your Couch Contain Flame Retardants? Get It Tested for FREE

If you’re wondering whether a piece of furniture or other foam item might contain flame retardants, scientists at Duke University’s Superfund Research Center will test them free of charge. Only polyurethane foam can be tested, but this is commonly used in upholstered furniture, padded chairs, car seats, and more. All you need to remove is a sample the size of a marble, and Duke will accept up to five individual samples per household. Each will be tested for the presence of seven common flame retardants. Here’s how it works:

  1. Complete an electronic sample request to generate your Sample ID Number
  2. Prepare your sample
    • Cut a piece of foam, 1 cubic centimeter in size (a little bigger than the size of a marble).
    • Wrap the foam in aluminum foil.
    • Place each foam sample in its own re-sealable sandwich bag; be sure to completely seal the bag.
    • Attach or write the Sample ID Number on the re-sealable sandwich bag.
  3. Mail it in. Enclose the following in a box or envelope:
    • Foam sample with Sample ID Number written on bag (Step 2)
    • Copy of confirmation email (Step 1)

    Mail to: Gretchen Kroeger, Box 90328 – LSRC, Duke University
    Durham, NC 27708

How to Reduce Your Exposure to Toxic Flame Retardants

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. Below are some general guidelines to consider that can help reduce your exposure to flame retardants 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.