Toxic chemicals known to cause cancer and other health effects are prevalent as flame retardants in standard household items like couches and carpet, as well as in firefighter uniforms. In past decades, many states mandated that manufacturers incorporate these chemicals into consumer products. These policies were enacted before scientists were able to determine the effects of these chemicals on health, and often with the strong support of the chemical and tobacco industries. Today, new research has called into question both the effectiveness of these chemicals–such as chlorinated tris and polybrominated diphenyl (PBDE)–and the associated health risk to consumers and firefighters.
California’s 1975 flammability standard led to manufacturers adding flame retardant chemicals to products nationwide. This standard has since been repealed and manufacturers can attain safe conditions without the use of these chemicals, and several, including Steelcase, Herman Miller, Knoll and Haworth, are voluntarily removing them from their products. You can find out more about safer alternatives that still meet fire safety standards here.
1) Chemical flame retardants are widely used in children’s products, and children can have up to five times higher levels of chemicals in their bodies than their mothers. These chemicals pose health risks including learning disabilities and developmental impairment. (Environmental Working Group)
2) Manufacturers can attain safe conditions without the use of these chemicals, and safer alternatives exist that still meet fire safety standards. (EPA)
3) Flame retardants put firefighters at higher risk for certain cancers, including 62% higher rates of esophageal cancer than the general public. The toxic smoke created by the burning of these chemicals can penetrate protective gear. (Marine & Environmental Research Institute)
NCEL’s Flame Retardant Factsheet
- Several states have introduced targeted legislation to ban children’s products and upholstered furniture containing chlorinated Tris flame retardants (insert alphabet soup here in parentheses), including Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Washington.
- Legislation to establish a list of chemicals of high concern, require manufacturer disclosure and eventual removal has been introduced in Oregon and New York
- A comprehensive list of legislation regarding flame retardants is available here.
Science & Reports
New research found potentially harmful flame retardants on the hands and in the homes of 100% of a sample of New York City mothers and toddlers. The study also found that on average toddlers in New York City had higher levels of common flame-retardants on their hands compared to their mothers.The study is the first comparison of PBDEs, TBB, and TBPH in house dust and handwipe samples from maternal-child pairs. More information on the study is available here.
Researchers found that every tenfold increase in levels of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in a mother’s blood during pregnancy corresponded to a 115 gram (4.1 ounce) drop in her baby’s birthweight. While the majority of the babies in the study were not classified as “low birthweight,” the decline in weight could put smaller babies at risk in the future. More information about the study is available here.
- Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in Their Food — Environmental Science & Technology, 2011
Researchers found high levels of toxic flame retardant chemicals in the blood of pet dogs, with concentrations five to 10 times higher than in humans. Previous studies have found even higher levels in cats, and scientists hope to use dogs as a proxy for monitoring human exposure to these harmful chemicals. The full study is available here.
This study investigated the impact of widespread polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants on pregnancy time and menstrual cycle characteristics. The results showed PBDE exposure resulted in longer time to pregnancy, and was one of the first to look directly at effects on human fertility. The full study is available here.
This study analyzed whether polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)–a widely used flame retardant–impact neurodevelopment in children. Researchers found that children with high concentrations of PBDEs scored lower on tests of mental and physical development. The full study is available here.
This report is the fourth in an ongoing assessment of toxic chemicals to which the U.S. population is exposed. The report presents exposure data for 212 chemicals, including 75 chemicals being measured for the first time in the U.S. The full report is available here.
Download the NCEL Fact Sheet with key points and links to legislation here.
ACAT compiled key science on flame retardants that highlights where they are found and health effects for specific chemicals. The fact sheet can be viewed here.
Toxic-Free Future conducted a secret shopper survey to track flame retardants in home furniture and compiled the results. The study outcomes are available here.
The Minnesota Professional Firefights Association and Healthy Legacy have created a detailed fact sheet explaining the risk that flame retardant chemicals pose to firefighters and consumers. The fact sheet can be viewed here.
The Washington Toxics Coalition tracked the air quality of ten Washingtonians to determine if they were exposed to flame retardant chemicals and to identify which chemicals. The study found that each participant was exposed to multiple toxic flame retardant chemicals. The full report can be viewed here.
Safer States is a network of diverse environmental health coalitions and organizations in states around the country that focus on chemical policy. The network has developed an active database of bills related to flame retardant legislation that is available here.
Recent News Stories
A new study revealed that children with high blood-lead levels are more likely to have lower IQs and to wind up lower on the socioeconomic ladder 30 years later. The research is from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Study out of Dunedin, New Zealand. The project is the longest running longitudinal, or cohort, study, […]
Some members of Congress are suggesting a rollback of key environmental laws, which could have profound impacts on public health.
A new study has found potentially toxic flame retardant (FR) chemicals on every mother and child that participated. The research, conducted by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, analyzed mother-child pairs in New York City and found 100% exposure, with toddlers having higher concentrations than their mothers. FRs have been linked to impaired mental […]
Legislators, parents and firefighters joined together in Connecticut for a press conference last week on the toxicity of flame retardant chemicals. These additives were introduced in the 1970s to prevent the spread of fires, but have since been linked to increases in cancer. “They are toxic to our fire fighters and incredibly toxic to our […]
Reproductive health professionals describe increasingly evident link between toxic chemicals and health issues A new report published by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) outlines how increased exposure to toxic chemicals is threatening human reproduction and health. Exposure to toxics such as air pollutants, pesticides and plastics have been linked to miscarriage, stillbirths, […]
Congratulations to Oregon Rep. Keny-Guyer and Sen. Chris Edwards on passage of the Toxic Free Kids Act. (SB 478).
NCEL Chair Hubbard Statement on Chemical Safety Improvement Act
Letter to Senators Boxer and Vitter regarding Chemical Safety Improvement Act: State Legislators Call on Senate to Strengthen S.1009
NCEL Urges FDA Action on BPA
MS River Forum Presentation– Gynnie Robnett, OMB Watch Fracking PowerPoint final