By Dr. Mercola
If flame-retardant chemicals were the panacea for saving lives during fires that the chemical industry would have you believe, no one would stand behind them more than firefighters — the first responders in a fire.
Firefighters have disproportionately high rates of cancer compared to the general public, and the International Association of Fire Fighters found exposure to fumes from burning flame-retardant chemicals may be at least partly to blame.2
A group of more than 20 firefighter, health, science and consumer groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Hispanic Medical Association and the International Association of Fire Fighters, has asked the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban organohalogen flame retardants.
The petition calls for sales of four categories of consumer products — children's products, furniture, mattresses and electronic casings — to be prohibited if they contain the chemicals.
Americans Unite to Ban Toxic Flame Retardants
The public comment period for the petition to ban organohalogen flame retardants ended in January 2016.
CPSC was "inundated by a flood of comments in favor of the ban," including many from firefighters and their families, doctors, nurses and scientists. Earthjustice, which helped prepare the petition, shared several of them:3
"As a firefighter, I understand the science and politics around chemical fire retardants. They have got to go! They don't benefit us, and they directly put us at risk for an assortment of dangerous diseases." — Russell S., Raleigh, NC
"I am a chemistry professor and it is crucial for our health that we reduce the exposure to toxic chemicals in everyday products.
Chemicals that we would wear safety equipment to handle in the laboratory should not be added to products, and toxic flame retardants show no life-saving benefits to counter the toxicity of the chemicals and it is time to ban them from furniture." — Lance P., San Diego, CA
"As an RN specialized in newborns and child development, this is absolutely critical. Infants are nursed on 'boppy' pillows filled with these toxic flame retardants.
In the 1970s, the chemical industry lied to Congress to get their chemicals mandated in our household goods and children's clothing, for profit only, knowing they would give us cancer and neurological disorders and disabilities.
50 years of profiting from poisoning Americans has got to stop!" — Melanie C., Falmouth, ME
There were some comments opposing the ban as well — from chemical manufacturers who expressed "concerns" about prohibiting an entire class of (profitable) chemicals. According to Chemical Watch:4
"The [industry] coalition further cautions the CPSC that implementing a regulation, without an analysis of each of the chemicals covered by it, 'would set an inappropriate and unsupported precedent for federal chemical regulation, especially one that will have a federal interagency impact.'
Several groups, representing specific consumer products named in the petition — including the Toy Industry Association (TIA), the American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA) and the International Sleep Products Association (ISPA) — said, in independent cover letters, that while the named substances are not typically used in their members' products, they oppose the petition.
'ISPA opposes, as a matter of policy, any administrative action that, in effect, would prohibit the use of entire families of chemicals in consumer products, as petitioners request.'"
Washington State Legislation Would Extend Flame-Retardant Ban
As the health risks of flame retardants become more widely known, increasing numbers of state legislators are taking action.
Washington state lawmakers have already prohibited the use of certain flame-retardant chemicals in children's products and furniture, but manufacturers simply replaced them with even more toxic alternatives.
The Washington Toxics Coalition wanted to find out whether the replacement fire retardants were contaminating air and household dust, so they had volunteers who wore personal air samplers for 24 hours.
The replacement chemicals were not only detected in the participants' air but at much higher levels than the old flame retardants were.5
The Toxics Coalition is supporting House Bill 2545, the Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act, which aims to ban five additional flame retardants and gives the state Department of Health the ability to ban additional flame retardants in children's products and residential furniture.6
Minnesota Bans Four Flame Retardants
In Minnesota, firefighters have been fighting for the passage of a bill to phase out 10 different kinds of flame retardants, highlighting the risks to their own health. The bill would ban the manufacture and wholesale distribution of treated items in Minnesota by 2017.
The following year, retail sale of such items, no matter where they were manufactured, would also be banned.
Six other states are reportedly also considering similar bans, and Oregon, Maine, and Vermont have already passed such legislation, although it's narrower in scope. According to the Star Tribune:7
"At a time when cancer accounts for more than half of line-of-duty firefighter deaths nationwide, the union wants Minnesota to follow the suit of three other states that have begun phasing out certain flame retardants by eventually banning their manufacture and sale in Minnesota."
In an effort to end House leaders' reluctance to act on the bill, firefighters put on a demonstration, lighting furniture on fire, to show that treated furniture only delays the fire by a few seconds, while releasing significantly higher amounts of smoke, carbon monoxide and cancer-causing fumes.8
Unfortunately, while the Minnesota Senate approved the ban on 10 flame retardants, the House approved a watered-down version that included bans on just four. Still, it's a step in the right direction.
Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters union President Chris Parsons and St. Paul fire captain told the Star Tribune:9
"We are leaving off the list six carcinogenic flame retardants, so in that regards I'm not pleased about it … But does it move the conversation further, does it get us closer to our goal? Yes. In the meantime will firefighters continue to be exposed? That I'm not happy about."
What Are the Health Risks of Flame Retardants in Your Home?
Exposure to toxic chemicals, including flame retardants, is causing young firefighters to develop aggressive cancers at an early age.10 But there are also significant risks posed by just living in a home in which these chemicals are present (which is most homes in the U.S.).
Research published in Environmental Science & Technology revealed that 85 percent of couch foam samples tested contained chemical flame retardants.11 And 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.
A separate study in Environmental Science & Technology also detected flame-retardant chemicals in 80 percent of children's products tested, including portable cribs, nursing pillows, strollers and more.13
Flame-retardant chemicals have been linked to serious health risks, including infertility, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays, reduced IQ and behavioral problems in children, hormone disruptions, and various forms of cancer.
In fact, flame retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were identified as one of 17 "high priority" chemical groups that should be avoided to reduce your breast cancer risk. Mounting evidence also suggests PBDEs are developmental neurotoxicants.
Research published in the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology linked the chemicals with attention problems in 3- to 7-year-old children.14 About 75 percent of California residents have flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies, according to a late 2014 study.15
Many of them had no less than six different kinds, including one (chlorinated tris, or TDCIPP) that was phased out of children's pajamas in the 1970s. Considering all the health risks, you might assume flame retardants redeem themselves by saving lives in the event of a fire.
In the CNN video below, 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.
California Does Away With Open-Flame Test for Furniture
On a positive note, California revised Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) so that an open flame test is no longer required. As of January 1, 2015, compliance with the updated TB117-2013 became mandatory, which requires upholstered furniture sold in the state to no longer smolder 45 minutes after a lit cigarette is placed on it.
This requirement can be met without the use of flame-retardant chemicals (although the law does not ban their use). For instance, a fire barrier such as polyester batting may be added as a liner in lieu of the chemicals. In California, furnishings that are in compliance with the updated flammability standards will carry a "TB 117-2013" tag indicating its compliance. Look for this tag and ask the retailer whether a particular piece contains flame-retardant chemicals.
Do You Want to Know What Types of Flame Retardants Are Lurking in Your Furniture?
Duke University scientists will test a sample of your polyurethane foam, which 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 it will be tested for the presence of seven common flame retardants. Here's how it works:
- Complete an electronic sample request to generate your Sample ID Number
- 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.
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)
Box 90328 - LSRC
Durham, NC 27708
The research lab has the capacity to analyze only 50 samples per month, and they close submissions once the quota is reached. Before sending in your sample, check with the Duke University Superfund Submit a Sample website to see if they're still accepting submissions (for best results, check in on the first of the month).
It's Time to Get Toxic Flame Retardants Out of Americans' Homes
It's clear that the science and public attitude support the removal of toxic flame retardant chemicals from consumer goods, but whether the petition will move forward remains to be seen. As reported by the Chicago Tribune:
" … [I]t remains unclear whether the commission is prepared for another fight with the chemical industry, one of the biggest spenders on lobbying in Washington. The outcome of … [this] year's presidential election also could alter the political balance of the five-member panel and affect the fate of the petition."
If the proposed ban is carried out, all organohalogens, the most commonly used flame retardants found in children's goods, furniture, mattresses, and electronics' casings, would be removed from the bulk of consumer goods. 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, has also been linked to heart disease, obesity, and cancer
- Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), associated with altered hormone levels, reduced sperm concentrations, and endocrine disruption
- Firemaster 550, which replaced PBDEs that were removed from the market, has since been linked to heart disease, obesity, and cancer
Despite their phase-out, PBDE-containing products may still be lurking around your home. So while we await the fate of the latest attempts to ban flame retardants from consumer goods, you can use these tips to reduce your exposure to PBDEs around your home:16
- 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."
Organic wool (100 percent) 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 flame retardants like PBDE. Organic cotton or flannel also tends to be flame-resistant. Kevlar fibers, the material they make bulletproof vests out of, is also sufficient to pass the fire safety standards. Stearns and Foster is one brand that sells this type of mattress.
- PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often.