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Are Flame Retardants Toxic?

I've been hearing all sorts of bad things about the effects of flame retardants on health. Are the chemicals used for this purpose really toxic? If so, what can we do to protect ourselves?

Answer (Published 6/8/2012)

Flame retardants do appear to present a threat to health and may potentially do more harm than good in a fire. A British study presented at the March 2012 national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) found that flame retardants increase the danger of invisible toxic gases, which are the leading cause of death in fires. The lead researcher reported that today"s most widely used flame retardants contain the hazardous chemical element bromine and that they actually increase amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide released during fires. 

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The British study is the latest in a growing body of research on this issue. According to the National Resources Defense Council, flame retardants known collectively as "Tris" that are used in baby products, furniture and many other household items have been linked to cancer and can harm the liver, kidney, brain, and testes. One of the chemicals in this group, TDCP - Tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl phosphate) - has been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission; another, TCEP - Tris (2-chloroethyl phosphate) - has been shown to cause neurological and reproductive harm in laboratory animals as well as cancer.

Young children are most susceptible to the toxicity of flame retardant chemicals; they can ingest 10 times the amount adults do because they crawl around on the floor and put their hands and other objects into their mouths.

A vast variety of consumer products contain a flame retardant: automotive foam cushioning, strollers, nursing pillows, televisions, computers, adhesives, upholstery, carpet backing, rubber, plastics, paints, and varnishes. TDCP and TCEP have been found in drinking water and in water samples from streams throughout the U.S.

A report published in September 2011 in Yale Environment 360, noted that while the use of some flame retardants has been limited or banned by the federal government and by various states, these efforts may not be succeeding. Here are some recent findings:

  • Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found that each 10-fold increase in levels of various brominated flame retardants in a mother's blood was associated with a 4.1 ounce drop in the baby's birth weight.
  • Toxic flame retardants were found in 80 percent of baby and children's products, according to a study published in the June, 15 2011 issue of Environmental Science & Technology.
  • A flame retardant called BVO (brominated vegetable oil), banned in foods throughout Europe and in Japan, is used in Mountain Dew and other citrus-flavored sodas. The FDA limits amounts to 15 parts per million, but the stuff accumulates in the heart, liver and fat tissue.
  • A 2012 study from the University of Illinois found that cats living indoors have higher blood levels of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) – flame retardants in furniture and electronics – than feral cats who live outdoors. And a 2011 study from Indiana University found levels of PBDEs in the blood of pet dogs at levels five to 10 times higher than those found in humans.

Here are some suggestions from the Environmental Working Group on avoiding flame retardants:  

  • Get rid of furniture with torn upholstery and visible foam padding.
  • Don't reupholster foam furniture. 
  • Most electronics contain PBDE; try to keep kids away from them, and when replacing electronics look for those that are "PDBE free."
  • Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

    Andrew Weil, M.D.

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