Flame retardants sound like a good idea to prevent our couches and computers and carpets from combusting. Yet these chemicals also accumulate and linger in our homes, sometimes winding up in household dust at levels of health concern. That was one of the central findings of a recent Silent Spring Institute study, the first to test for a wide range of flame retardants in homes.
Consumer products such as furniture, textiles, and electronics often contain chemical flame retardants. These chemicals can come out of the products into house dust and the environment where people are exposed to them. House dust is a major source of exposure, particularly for children. Flame retardants have been detected in human blood, urine, breast milk, indoor and outdoor air, house dust, food, and wildlife around the world.
Institute researchers tested for 49 flame retardant chemicals in household dust, the main route of exposure for people and especially for children. Forty-four chemicals were detected. Most homes had at least one chemical above a federal health guideline. The flame retardants found in house dust include carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and chemicals with unknown safety profiles.
“Our study found that people are exposed to toxic flame retardants every day,” said Robin Dodson, PhD, a coauthor of the study and a scientist at Silent Spring Institute. “These hazardous chemicals are in the air we breathe, the dust we touch, and the couches we sit on. Many flame retardants raise health concerns, including cancer, hormone disruption, and harmful effects on brain development. It is troubling to see that a majority of homes have at least one flame retardant at levels beyond what the federal government says is safe. Infants and toddlers who spend much time on the floor are at higher risk for exposure.”
Silent Spring Institute researchers first began studying flame retardants in Cape Cod homes, where they discovered levels of PBDE flame retardants were much higher than in Europe. Then in 2006, Silent Spring researchers found that Californians had even higher levels of PBDEs in their homes and bodies than the rest of the nation, likely the result of a unique statewide furniture flammability standard. That same year, California banned two commercial PBDE flame retardant mixtures, PentaBDE and OctaBDE. These chemicals were phased out nationwide.
When the researchers resampled the homes as part of the more recent study, after the PentaBDE and OctaBDE ban, they found increased levels of a new replacement for PentaBDE, Firemaster® 550. PentaBDE levels fell significantly in homes that added new furniture, electronics, and flooring, indicating exposure shifts when products were replaced after the PentaBDE phase-out.
In contrast, people who added new furniture between sampling rounds had an increase in a listed carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65 (TDCIPP, or chlorinated “Tris”), suggesting its use as a PentaBDE replacement. TDBPP (brominated “Tris”) was detected in 75 percent of the homes. This chemical was banned in children’s sleepwear in 1977 because of its potential to cause cancer but is still allowed in other products; this is the first report on TDBPP in household dust. The results suggest that after the phase-out of PentaBDE and OctaBDE, manufacturers continued to use hazardous chemicals as flame retardants and to replace chemicals of concern with chemicals with uncharacterized toxicity.
“When one toxic flame retardant is phased out, it’s being replaced by another chemical we either know is dangerous or suspect may be,” said Julia Brody, PhD, executive director of Silent Spring Institute and a study coauthor. “It’s not comforting to swap one hazardous chemical for its evil cousin. Instead, we should test chemicals before they are allowed on the market.”
California’s strict flammability standard for polyurethane foam in furniture affects exposures nationwide, because manufacturers design products sold through the U.S. to meet the rule. Yet according to fire safety expert Dr. Vytenis Babrauskas, the California flammability standard “provides no meaningful protection against the hazard it addresses – furniture ignited by small flames. In view of the toxicity of substances put into furniture foam to meet the California standard, the rule does more harm than good.”
Silent Spring Institute’s study adds groundbreaking new evidence to support California Governor Jerry Brown’s promise to quickly to revise the state’s furniture flammability rule, which affects the health of people around the country.
The study appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology. For more information about the study, visit www.silentspring.org/flame-retardant-follow-up.
Try This at Home: Here are some steps you can take to reduce your exposure
- Go natural. Select carpets, carpet pads, bedding, cushions, and upholstered furniture made from naturally flame-resistant materials such as wool, cotton, polyester, and hemp.
- Repair ripped furniture. Flame retardants are added to polyurethane foam filling, so mend any rips your couch or chair upholstery may have.
- Keep down dust. Vacuum regularly with a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter. Wipe surfaces with a wet cloth or mop.
- Wash hands frequently. Hand washing does more than prevent the spread of germs; it also reduces the amount of flame retardants entering our bodies. Remember to use regular soap and water instead of antibacterial soaps, which may contain endocrine disrupting chemicals.
- Buy snug pajamas for children. Sleepwear for children nine months and older is subject to flammability tests. Look for snug-fitting cotton sleepwear that is labeled as not flame resistant.
- Get involved. You can help change California’s furniture flammability standard. For more information, visit Green Science Policy Institute. Learn more about keeping your home healthy at www.silentspring.org/take-action.