29 Sep 2011: Report

Are Flame Retardants Safe?
Growing Evidence Says ‘No’

New studies have underscored the potentially harmful health effects of the most widely used flame retardants, found in everything from baby blankets to carpets. Health experts are now calling for more aggressive action to limit these chemicals, including cutting back on highly flammable, petroleum-based materials used in many consumer products.

by elizabeth grossman

Over the past 40 years, a class of chemicals with the tongue-twisting name of halogenated flame retardants has permeated the lives of people throughout the industrialized world. These synthetic chemicals — used in electronics, upholstery, carpets, textiles, insulation, vehicle and airplane parts, children’s clothes and strollers, and many other products — have proven very effective at making petroleum-based materials resist fire.

Yet many of these compounds have also turned out to be environmentally mobile and persistent — turning up in food and household dust — and are now so ubiquitous that levels of the chemicals in the blood of North Americans appear to have been doubling every two to five years for the past several decades.

Acting on growing evidence that these flame retardants can accumulate in people and cause adverse health effects — interfering with hormones, reproductive systems, thyroid and metabolic function, and neurological development in infants and children — the federal government and various
Compounds thought to be off the market due to health concerns continue to be used in the U.S.
states have limited or banned the use of some of these chemicals, as have other countries. Several are restricted by the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants. Many individual companies have voluntarily discontinued production and use of these compounds. Yet despite these restrictions, evidence has emerged in recent months that efforts to curtail the use of such flame retardants — a $4 billion-a-year industry globally — and to limit their impacts on human health may not be succeeding.

This spring and summer, a test of consumer products, as well as a study in Environmental Science & Technology, showed that use of these chemicals continues to be widespread and that compounds thought to be off the market due to health concerns continue to be used in the U.S., including in children’s products such as crib mattresses, changing table pads, nursing pillows, and car seats. Also this summer, new research provided the first strong evidence that maternal exposure to a widely used type of flame retardant, known as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), can alter thyroid function in pregnant women and children, result in low birth weights, and impair neurological development.

“Of most concern are developmental and reproductive effects and early life exposures — in utero, infantile and for children,” Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, said in an interview.

Heather Stapleton, assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University and lead author of the recent Environmental Science & Technology study, said more action from industry and government
Many infants are in physical contact with products treated with these chemicals 24 hours a day.
regulators is urgently needed. “My concern is the elevated exposure infants and toddlers are receiving,” Stapleton said in an email. “A high proportion of infants are in physical contact with products treated with these chemicals almost 24 hours a day. Some of these chemicals are either known or suspected carcinogens. During the first year of life, infants are still developing, particularly their brain. And some of these flame retardant chemicals have chemical structures similar to known developmental neurotoxicants (e.g. organophosphate pesticides).”

In one study, published this summer in the American Journal of Epidemiology, University of California, Berkeley researchers found that each ten-fold increase in levels of various brominated flame retardants in a mother’s blood was associated with an approximately 115 gram decrease in her baby’s birth weight, a drop the researchers describe as “relatively large.”

“What makes this significant, is that this is the first long study that suggests maternal exposure to PBDEs may impact fetal development and health,” explained lead author Kim Harley, associate director for health effects at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health.

As evidence linking the use of halogenated flame retardants to health risks continues to mount, there is increasing pressure on government and industry to take action. About a dozen U.S. states have enacted laws that bar certain uses of various flame retardants. Among these regulations are those that bar the use of two or more polybrominated diphenyl ethers
Flame retardants are still found in products from which they have been barred, probably due to poor oversight of supply chains.
(PBDEs), particularly in children’s products. New York recently passed a law limiting use of the flame retardant known as Tris, while the European Union limits the use of certain halogenated flame retardants in electronics — a regulation that most companies comply with worldwide. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission barred Tris from children’s clothing in 1977 after it was identified as a carcinogen and a mutagen. And using its authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and PBDE manufacturers have worked out a voluntary phase-out of these compounds that began in 2004 and is to conclude in 2013.

Yet new halogenated flame retardants with chemical compositions and structures similar to those that are now regulated, including PBDEs, continue to enter the market. (This class of compounds typically uses bromine and chlorine, elements known as halogens, to inhibit combustion.) Meanwhile, those that are restricted are being found in products from which they’ve been barred, most likely due to various flaws in supply-chain oversight. At the same time, older products containing discontinued flame retardants remain in use; many of these products — furniture, carpeting, car seats, and strollers, for example — are designed to last for years, prolonging exposure to chemicals with documented adverse health effects. But tracking the use of individual flame retardants is challenging, as product labels are not required to declare these substances, nor are chemical manufacturers required to reveal full details of what goes into their products.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) and other chemical industry groups maintain the safety of currently manufactured flame retardants, and the ACC says that in the U.S. each year flame retardants prevent 360 deaths and 740 injuries that would have resulted from furniture fires alone.

So how can use of these compounds be reduced or eliminated?

The EPA is in the process of assessing potential alternatives to PBDEs and other flame retardants. But a list of potential alternatives released last month includes numerous other halogenated compounds, and many chemicals on the list will likely fail to meet the program’s health-safety goals.

Some experts say what is sorely needed is for industry to begin relying less on the highly flammable, petroleum-based materials used in so many consumer products. “It’s essential that we rethink the base materials we
‘I don’t question the need for flame retardants in airplanes, but do we need them in baby strollers?’ asked one expert.
use to make products,” said Kathy Curtis, policy director of Clean New York, a non-profit organization advocating for chemical safety. “Styrene insulation is so flammable that flame retardants are required, and they still burn quite easily. Polyurethane foam in furniture and baby care products is also highly flammable, despite the added flame retardants certain flammability standards require. We have to stop using such fuel-rich, petroleum-based materials in buildings when safer, inherently flame-retardant substitutes are available for these same uses.”

John Warner, president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, said that industry has become so reliant on flame retardants that as much as a third of the weight of plastics used in airplanes comes from one type of PBDE flame retardant, known as “deca.” Finding an alternative will be challenging, said Warner, especially since from a fire-safety point of view deca is “tried and true,” and it is used in so many different types of plastics and foams. There are viable non-toxic alternatives to using halogenated flame retardants, Warner explained, but thus far, not one that will work as a drop-in substitute for all uses of deca.

Two companies that manufacture children’s products are working to eliminate the need for flame-retardant chemicals by using fabrics whose density and composition enable them to meet flammability standards without chemical additives. Joseph Hei, president and founder of OrbitBaby, said his company has commissioned the milling of its own patented, organic cotton-wool blend fabrics that are fire-resistant. The safety of the products is certified to the Oeko-Tex 100 standard, administered by the Zurich-based Oeko-Tex Institute, which conducts tests to ensure the safety of textiles. “We verify and do our own follow-up screening of these fabrics,” Hei said in an interview.

Andreas Zandren, vice-president for sales, marketing, and product development for BabyBjorn, said his company has found a similar solution by using a densely woven cotton in some products and thinner foams that don’t require use of flame retardants. BabyBjorn does in-house testing of all fabrics to make sure they are free of hazardous flame retardants, Zandren said.

Hei explained that there are relatively few mills that offer Oeko-Tex certified fabrics, adding, “It’s a sourcing challenge.” Both companies also acknowledged that meeting California’s tough flammability standards and U.S. car flammability regulations is challenging. But, said Zandren, “Strict standards challenge us to be very creative in sourcing and testing new materials, as well as creating smart designs.”

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This kind of sourcing and testing is costly, as reflected in these companies’ product prices when compared with other more mass-market brands. Asked about the relatively high price of OrbitBaby products and what that means for lower-income consumers, Hei said that he hoped awareness would lead to more demand for the kinds of materials his company is using and thus lead to lower prices. Several larger companies, among them Graco and Walmart, make car seats also rated as low in flame retardants by the Michigan-based non-profit, HealthyStuff.org. Walmart restricts use of PBDEs in children’s and other products, but declined to discuss details of what alternatives their products use to meet safety standards. Graco also declined comment on that issue.

Eventually, product redesign that avoids flammable materials will be key, experts said.

“I think we should be asking, ‘Where do we really need them?’” said Linda Birnbaum of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “I don’t question the need for flame retardants in an airplane, but do we need them in nursing pillows and babies’ strollers? Are we putting chemicals in places we don’t need them?”

POSTED ON 29 Sep 2011 IN Business & Innovation Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Pollution & Health Asia North America 

COMMENTS


Imagine a stroller getting near a heat source and left say touching a radiator. You wouldn't want it to light up.

Posted by George Birbilis on 29 Sep 2011


The article is calling for common sense decision making in the daily exposure of flame retardant chemicals. As an environmental chemist I agree personal exposure to these toxins is a greater health hazard than the risk of a fire. Pillows, mattresses, and children’s materials should be exempt from these chemicals, and materials exposed to the now barred chemicals should be removed from use, just as we do with buildings that contain asbestos. The industry is catering to a small percent of carless Americans who fall asleep with lit cigarettes. And we are all paying the price with the highest cancer rates in the world.

Posted by Lena Hakim on 29 Sep 2011


Most people who die in fires don't do so screaming as they burn, as industry would have us believe, rather, they are asphyxiated by gases that FRs increase the production of, and never wake up. That's why smoke alarms are becoming mandatory.

FRs do not stop all fires despite their widespread use. Smokers die by their own stupidity, and FRs won't save them. I don't really mind FRs in airplanes as I would like 10 more seconds to get to safety if I could. FRs are big business, just like tobacco, so you can get the drift.

Posted by Tom Muir on 29 Sep 2011


FRs listed in the Stockholm Convention are recognized as, as a global threat to human and environment health in the Stockholm Convention.

These same FRs are placed in new products and sold to consumers, unknowingly, in the guse of recycles plastic or foam.

See the New York Times article, about this practice: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/19/garden/tests-on-carpet-padding-show-toxins.html

See what over 200 International Scientist and Experts from 30 countries say about FRs as chemicals of concern in Environmental Health Perspectives:
http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/info:doi/10.1289/ehp.1003089

Learn more:
http://ipen.org/cop5/brominated-flame-retardants/

Posted by Bjorn Beeler on 29 Sep 2011


In the early seventies I was a member of the Product Technology Group at Arthur D Little, Inc. Cambridge , MA. that developed the flame retardant system that I call the scourge of mankind, a mixture of PBDE's and Antimony Trioxide.

The system was developed for NASA. In 1969 NASA lost an Astronaut team in a tragic launch
pad fire. NASA awarded ADL a contract to develop a flame retardant system for space clothing. We solved NASA's problem and also created problems for the rest ofd the world. The flame retardant system developed, comprised of Decabromobiphenyl ether and Antimony trioxide was added to Spandex to fire proof space clothing.

This flame retardant system was later marketed to the plastics industry and other manufacturing sectors of private industry including the National Fire Protection Association who wanted it put into everything.

Food and drink containers, mattresses, carpeting, clothing, electronics and a host of other consumer products are loaded with this flame retardant system. It was never intended to be used for food and drink packaging as we new it’s toxicity. ADL ignored my concerns over the materials safety, I was told to shut up. The only focus initially was solving NASA’s problem with space clothing.

Be healthy avoid ALL food and beverage packaged in plastics !

I have been working with my Senator Jeanne Shaheen, in NH to get this flame retardant system removed from all plastics. Through my Senator I sent a personal apology to the EPA for this flame retardant system and for not coming forward decades ago.

I have been actively involved for their removal. In June 2011, Steven A. Owens, Assistant EPA Administrator sent me a detailed letter with a voluntary scheduled industry phase out of PBDEs. by the manufacturer and importer. However, EPA does not have a plan for Antimony Trioxide.

Despite my concerns, letting them know that this too needs to be removed, they are playing games with me. They sent me to the FDA who are deniers and buck passers also giving me the run around. Both compounds are EDCs among other things and responsible for many illnesses.

They are leached from the plastic into liquids readily with concentration of contaminates increasing with temperature.

My quest for their removal will continue.

Posted by Anthony Samsel on 30 Sep 2011


Wow - Anthony. Thank you for sharing those details. I imagine it is difficult to have been part of the team that developed something that was supposed to be life-saving that is now being mis-used all over the globe and I think it is wonderful that you are working so hard to help push the necessary changes!

Great article - and I totally agree...how anyone thought FRs belonged in something like a nursing pillow is beyond me.

I also wanted to point out that there are a LOT more than two baby product manufacturers working very hard to make non-toxic products available to concerned consumers, including mattress manufacturer Naturepedic, bedding & pillow manufacturers like Holy Lamb Organics, Coyuchi, Argington, Pure Rest Organics and White Lotus, just to name a few.

And one more very common (and scary) use of FRs is in children's sleepwear. Look for a tag that says "this garment is not flame resistant: wear snug fitting" to ensure the pajamas kids are spending 50 percent of their time in are not treated with FRs.

Cotton and wool are naturally flame resistant materials and do not require chemical flame retardants. If you want to take it a step further, look for GOTS certified organic cotton pajamas: they will not only be free of FRs but also VOCs, heavy metal dyes, formaldehyde, chlorine and other toxins found in much of the apparel on mainstream store shelves.

Posted by Erin Naumowicz (founder of LullabyOrganics.com) on 30 Sep 2011


Excellent story. Lizzie Grossman writes about this complex topic in a very clear and interesting fashion.

Two comments
1. Due to poor flammability standards, often proposed and supported by the flame retardan chemical manufacturers, the flame retardant are not always effective. EG The standard for foam in furniture and baby products (which has led to the high levels of PBDE flame retardant found in the blood of North Americans) does not provide a fire safety benefit.


2. The Tris banned in NY isn't the same as either of the ones used in children's clothing in the 1970s. TCEP, which isn't commonly used anymore, was banned in NY state. TDCPP or chlorinated tris was removed from use in children's sleepwear in the 1970s and is the FR most commonly used in furniture and baby products in the US presently

Posted by Arlene Blum on 02 Oct 2011


Thank you for this article, I hope it is shared with many people. I live in NY and instead of seeing a decrease in items with flame retardants I am seeing more. I now see stuffed animals and pillows and even the fiber fill in craft stores coated in it. How do you live an everyday life without exposing yourself or children to it.

Posted by Suki on 24 Oct 2011


I find ironing board covers to all have fire retardant in them and most are imported from China and sold in most stores that carry this item

I have called because of the offensive odor that is in the product and packaging I bought from Target.

I also called most other stores and all the ironing board covers are fire-retardant.

I am worried about these chemicals and the exposure by using a hot iron in ironing!

I can no longer buy a ironing board cover!

Posted by shafer on 07 Mar 2012


I would like to be able to buy mostly-cotton shirts without the chemical smell in them, but it's getting harder (if not impossible) to find them since the existing government regulations are too broad.

I can see the point if you're wearing a synthetic fabric that easily burns, but the problem is when government tries to define a one-size-fits-all (pun intended) regulation, it produces unwanted consequences. How can the legislators hope to know every consequence? The problem is once a rule is put in place changes can be very difficult.

Why not let private watchdogs like the "Good Houskeeping Seal of Approval" be used to help keep us safe through market forces? They can respond as soon as a problem is identified...how long does it take for the government to correct a problem with their assumptions?

The smell of flame retardent chemicals in my clothes gives me a headache and irritates my skin. I don't seem to be able to get rid of it no matter how many times I wash (OK, my wife washes) my clothes.

I'm old enough to decide for myself (and my offspring) if we should wear toxic chemicals, so please help get rid of the flame-retardent legislation that forces manufacturers to poison our children!

Posted by David Anderson on 09 Apr 2012


Thanks for the info! The Chicago Tribune recently published an eye-opening article on the flame retardant industry and their push to keep their often ineffective, but toxic products on the market:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/flames/ct-met-flame-retardants-20120506,0,1627036.story

Posted by Nancy on 07 May 2012


Comments have been closed on this feature.
elizabeth grossmanABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and other publications. In earlier articles for Yale e360, she explored how the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster could affect marine life off the Japanese coast and reported on recent studies suggesting a possible link between prenatal exposure to pesticides and the mental abilities of children.
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