By Dr. Mercola
In 2015, Earthjustice and Consumer Federation of America, on behalf of 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, asked the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs), which have been linked to reduced IQ, cancer, hormone disruption and reproductive system damage.1
The petition called for sales of four categories of consumer products — children's products, furniture, mattresses and electronic casings — to be prohibited if they contain the chemicals, and in a major victory for environmental and public health, in September 2017 CPSC voted to grant the petition to remove the toxic chemicals from the product categories mentioned.
Organohalogen Flame Retardants May Leave a Toxic Legacy Similar to PCBs
At a public hearing held prior to the vote, Genna Reed, science and policy analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, testified that OFRs should be urgently banned, comparing their use to the "earliest form of flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)," which are also organohalogens, along with DDT.
PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development, accumulate in the environment, leaving a lasting toxic legacy that, unfortunately, may be very similar to that left by flame retardants, even after they're banned. Reed testified:2
"Despite being banned in 1977, these chemicals [PCBs] are still found in dangerously high amounts all over industrial hotspots of the country, and continue to bioaccumulate in a range of species. The ban of PCBs happened decades ago and we are still managing the damaging impacts of the chemical's prevalence across the country.
The next generation of these chemicals, organohalogen flame retardants, are inside of our own homes in a range of products, thanks largely in part to the disinformation campaign sowed by special interests. The fact remains that the science does not support their continued use."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also evaluating OFRs, but it could be 10 years or more before they make a decision to ban or restrict their use.3 Part of what makes OFRs so toxic is their semivolatile nature, which allows them to migrate from consumer products into household dust, where every household member, from children to pets, is easily exposed.
In a U.S. study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), flame retardants were detected in every sample of household dust they tested, at concerning levels.
"The average level of brominated fire retardants measured in dust from nine homes was more than 4,600 parts per billion (ppb) … [while] a tenth sample contained more than 41,000 ppb of the chemicals — twice as high as the maximum level previously reported by any dust study worldwide," EWG reported.4 As Reed noted, OFRs easily meet the definition of "toxic" under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) because ample evidence shows they have the "capacity to cause personal illness."
"[E]xposure has been associated with a range of health impacts including reproductive impairment, neurological impacts, endocrine disruption, genotoxicity, cancer and immune disorders," she said at the public hearing, adding that, "perhaps most egregiously, biomonitoring data have revealed that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to and bear high levels of flame retardant chemicals, adding to the cumulative chemical burden that these communities are already experiencing."5
American Chemistry Council Deceived the Public About Flame Retardants' Toxicity, Effectiveness
In 2012, the Chicago Tribune published a revealing investigation, "Playing With Fire," showing how the chemical industry used tobacco-industry tactics to deceive Americans into accepting flame-retardant chemicals into their homes. In fact, Big Tobacco was involved in their pervasive spread because when the chemicals were developed in the 1970s, nearly half of Americans smoked and cigarettes were a common cause of fires.
As revealed in "Toxic Hot Seat," a documentary based on the Tribune's investigation, rather than create self-extinguishing cigarettes to cut down on fire hazards, the tobacco industry created a front group called the National Association of State Fire Marshals, which pushed for federal standards for fire-retardant furniture.
It worked, and in 1975 California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) was passed, which required furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small flame without igniting — and it basically became a national standard.
The chemical industry then engaged in a deceitful battle to ensure the chemicals stayed front-and-center in Americans' homes, from establishing phony front groups to funding biased research to meet their agenda, despite evidence showing the chemicals limited effectiveness and health risks. Reed testified in September 2017:6
"The companies that manufacture OFRs have put significant time and money into distorting the scientific truth about these chemicals. As a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigative series noted, the chemical industry 'has twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry-funded reports as rigorous science.'
In one case, manufacturers of flame retardants repeatedly pointed to a decades-old government study, arguing the results showed a 15-fold increase in time to escape fires when flame retardants were present.
The lead author of the study, however, said industry officials 'grossly distorted' the results and that 'industry has used this study in ways that are improper and untruthful,' as the amount of flame retardant used in the tests was much greater than would be found in most consumer items.
The American Chemistry Council has further misrepresented the science behind flame retardants by creating an entire website to spread misleading ideas about flame retardants as safe and effective, even though research has consistently shown their limited effectiveness. In doing so, the American Chemistry Council and its member companies have promoted the prevalent use of OFRs at the expense of public health."
The chemical industry also engaged in a tactic known as "regrettable substitution," in which they removed certain flame retardants from products only to replace them with similar, less regulated chemicals that pose many of the same health risks.7
On a positive note, California revised 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).
Maine Passes Law to Phase Out Flame Retardants in Furniture
It seems the die may have been cast when it comes to the future of flame retardants in the U.S., with both the CPSC's recent stance against them as well as an August 2017 vote in Maine, in which lawmakers passed a law to phase out all flame-retardant chemicals in home furniture — overriding a veto from the governor to do so. While existing inventories of furniture will be allowed to be sold, this ends after January 1, 2019 — the date which furniture containing flame retardants may no longer be sold in the state of Maine.
As for the CPSC vote, it's encouraging that the agency finally took a stand against toxic flame retardants. As EWG said, "The CPSC's decision is the most sweeping action to date by the federal government to reduce Americans' exposure to these chemicals," although "[r]emoving these chemicals from products will not happen overnight, as the commission will appoint an expert panel of toxicologists to guide the agency on rulemaking."8
In Washington, meanwhile, the Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act, which bans five flame retardants and gives the state Department of Health the ability to ban additional flame retardants in children's products and residential furniture, took effect in July 2017. It includes the first ban on tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), which is a flame retardant often found in children's car seats.9
New TVs Loaded With Flame Retardants
While CPSC has begun the conversation to ultimately ban the use of OFRs in children's products, mattresses, furniture and electronic casings, research released by Toxic-Free Future revealed that high levels of the chemicals are still being added to new products, namely televisions. Eleven of the 12 TVs tested contained flame-retardant chemicals at levels up to 33 percent by weight in the plastic.10 Eight of them also contained flame retardants of "high concern."
Toxic-Free Future reported, "Two of the TVs — one made by Element and one made by Samsung — contained the PBDE flame retardant deca-BDE, despite its being banned in five states. Those states are Washington, Maine, Oregon, Vermont, and Maryland. The TVs in the study were purchased in Washington. Only one TV, made by Insignia, did not contain any of the flame retardants tested for."11
It's a concerning finding, because it means the chemicals will continue to contaminate household dust and bioaccumulate in the environment and people's bodies for many years to come. While CPSC has urged manufacturers to stop using the chemicals, they're likely not going to give in without a fight.
Protect Yourself and Your Children From Flame-Retardant Chemicals
If you have older furniture in your home but aren't ready to replace it, consider replacing the foam cushions with flame retardant-free foam. If you're not sure whether your furniture's foam contains these chemicals, Duke University scientists will test it for you. 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.
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). In addition, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure, including these tips from the Green Science Policy Institute:12
- 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. Washing your hands regularly can also help.
As far as mattresses go, if you want to avoid flame retardants and other chemicals in your mattress, you can have a licensed health care provider write you a prescription for a chemical-free mattress, which can then be ordered without flame retardants from certain retailers. You can also find certain natural mattresses on the market that don't contain them. For instance, most wool mattresses do not have flame-retardant chemicals added because wool is a natural flame retardant.
Another option is to look for an organic mattress that meets the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which means at least 95 percent of the mattress materials must be certified organic and certain substances, including flame retardants and polyurethane (common in memory foam products), are prohibited.
Since you spend from six to nine-plus hours every night with your face in close proximity to your mattress, breathing in these chemicals, choosing a flame-retardant-free mattress is an excellent first step toward reducing your exposure.