Firefighters Are Still Fighting Deadly Flame Retardants


Story at-a-glance -

  • Lawmakers in Massachusetts are considering two bills that would significantly reduce residents’ and firefighters’ exposure to flame retardants
  • The bills, which are supported by fire officials, call for a ban on flame-retardant chemicals in children’s products and upholstered furniture.
  • The laws would also authorize state officials to ban other flame retardants if they are deemed to be health risks

By Dr. Mercola

If flame-retardant chemicals worked, they would probably have no stronger supporters than firefighters. Yet, it's this population that is among their strongest opponents. It's not only that the chemicals are ineffective but also the fact that they're highly toxic.

Charging into a burning home is dangerous enough, but entering a home with burning flame-retardant chemicals is even worse. An object treated with flame-retardant chemicals can still catch fire, and, when it does, it will give off higher levels of toxic carbon monoxide, soot and smoke than an untreated object.

California female firefighters aged 40 to 50 are six times more likely to develop breast cancer than the national average. Why California? Likely because in 1975 California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) was passed.

It required furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small flame without igniting — a requirement manufacturers met by dousing furniture in flame retardants.

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.

Massachusetts Firefighters Seek Ban on Flame Retardants

Lawmakers in Massachusetts are considering two bills that would significantly reduce residents' and firefighters' exposure to flame retardants. The bills, which are being supported by both fire officials and environmental groups, call for a ban on flame-retardant chemicals in children's products and upholstered furniture.

They would also authorize state officials to ban other flame retardants if they are deemed to be health risks.1 The bills go further to ban flame retardants than any other U.S. state legislation to date.

Even as the health risks of the chemicals become increasingly known, the chemical industry is continuing to fight for their continued use.

Officials with the American Chemistry Council, for instance, testified against the Massachusetts bill, claiming flame retardants provide additional time for families to escape their homes if a fire breaks out.

However, in an effort to end Minnesota House leaders' reluctance to act on a similar bill that would phase out 10 different kinds of flame retardants, fire fighters put on a demonstration.

They lit 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.2

A better option, according to Massachusetts State Fire Marshal Peter Ostroskey, would be to install sprinklers, which slow fires more effectively than flame retardants and are far safer.3

Washington State Bans Five Flame Retardants

Increasing numbers of state legislators are taking action against flame retardants.

Washington state lawmakers have already prohibited the use of certain flame-retardant chemicals (including polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs) 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 (chlorinated flame retardants) were contaminating air and household dust, so they had volunteers wear 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.4,5

Fortunately, House Bill 2545, the Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act, was passed, which will 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

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Levels of Flame-Retardant Chemicals in California Women's Breast Milk Drop Following Ban

One type of flame-retardant chemicals, PBDEs, has been banned in the U.S. since 2004 due to health concerns. The state of California banned PBDEs in 2003, however.

A study conducted by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has now revealed that levels of the chemicals in breast milk dropped 39 percent from the first sampling period — conducted between 2003 and 2005 — and the second sampling period conducted between 2009 and 2012.7

Myrto Petreas, Ph.D., a supervising research scientist at DTSC's Environmental Chemistry Laboratory, said in a news release:8

"We first reported anomalously high levels of PBDEs more than 15 years ago and hypothesized that California's unique flammability standard was the reason. By comparing PBDEs in breast milk collected before and after the phase out, we found a significant decline."

PBDEs resemble the molecular structure of PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development.

Like PCBs, PBDEs persist in the environment and accumulate in your body — and can still exist in products imported from other countries or those manufactured prior to the ban (including electronics, upholstered furniture and more).

Higher exposures to PBDEs have been linked to decreased fertility,9 which could be in part because the chemicals may mimic your thyroid hormones. Previous research has suggested PBDEs can lead to decreases in TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone).10

When present with normal T4 levels, low TSH is typically a sign that you're developing hyperthyroidism, which can have significant ramifications both for you and your unborn child if you're pregnant.

Banning Flame Retardants Now Could Protect Future Generations

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,11 and children have been found to have levels of flame retardants that are as much as five times higher than their mothers'.12

Needless to say, 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 instance, a study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that both in utero and childhood PBDE exposures were associated with neurodevelopmental delays, including poorer attention, fine motor coordination, and cognition in school-age children.13

Yet another study also found that children whose mothers were exposed to flame-retardant chemicals during pregnancy had lower IQs and were more prone to hyperactivity disorders.14

In her book, "Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History," Florence Williams detailed her own journey of having both herself and her young daughter evaluated for chemicals in their bodies.

She found higher than expected levels of flame retardants (among other chemicals), which she believes may have come largely from exposure to upholstered furniture and electronics.

As Williams told Yes magazine, when policy changes result in some of these chemicals being taken off the market, it results in noticeable changes in our bodies, particularly in the breasts:15

"What's encouraging is that when the marketplace changes, our bodies, pretty quickly, reflect those changes. So breast-milk levels of flame retardants are dropping quickly. When we change policy, we can really change our bodies. That's empowering and important to know."

Boston Takes Measures to Protect Firefighters

The city of Boston, Massachusetts, is also taking steps to protect its firefighters from flame retardants. They've updated fire codes to state that public buildings with sprinklers are no longer required to use flame-retardant furniture.

They also advise firefighters to wear self-contained breathing apparatus during fires, wash soot from their skin as soon as possible, and then take a shower and wash their clothing as soon as possible.16 Still, firefighters are hoping for even more protections from toxic flame retardants. Jay Fleming, deputy chief of the Boston Fire Department and a consultant to Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, told The Boston Globe:17

"We shouldn't be the canary in the coal mine … The burden of proof should be on an industry that stands to make billions of dollars off these chemicals — not on the public or firefighters."

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:

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

The research lab only has the capacity to analyze 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).

How to Reduce Your Exposure to Flame Retardants

Flame retardants are so widely used that it's difficult to avoid them completely. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure, including these tips from the Green Science Policy Institute:

Avoid upholstered furniture with the TB117 label. If the label states,"This article meets the flammability requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin 117 … " it most likely contains flame retardants. However, even upholstered furniture that's unlabeled may contain flame retardants.

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.

Avoid baby products with foam. Nursing pillows, high chairs, strollers and other products containing polyurethane foam most likely contain flame retardants.

Avoid foam carpet padding. If possible, minimize the use of foam carpet padding, which often contains flame retardants. If removing carpeting, take precautions to avoid exposures. 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.

PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often.

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.