Toxic Flame Retardants in Your Home and Your Body

Flame retardants in my body? Yup!

Fire retardants are a group of toxic chemicals that are added to many plastics because of their inherent flammability. They are added to printed circuit boards (at the heart of electronics equipment), to housings for consumer electronics, to polyurethane foam padding (in mattresses and furniture), and sometimes to carpet padding.

Flame retardants are typically mixtures of about 200 varieties of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are chemical relatives of polychlorinated biphenyls and generally share in their toxic properties, persist in the environment, and are bioaccumulative, building up in people’s bodies over a lifetime

Although researchers have not yet seen human health effects associated with high PBDE body burdens, animal studies have shown that they can cause liver toxicity, disrupt thyroid hormone levels, and lead to developmental and reproductive toxicity.

A recent report states that very high levels of flame retardants are being found in blood and breast milk of most women. Nationwide tests in 2003 by the Environmental Working Group found record levels of PBDEs in the breast milk of mothers. As they reported, “It is no surprise that American homes are contaminated with PBDEs: they are added to thousands of everyday products, including computers, TVs and furniture.”

In the1980s polyurethane foam products contained 8 to 30% PBDE as a fire retardant to meet a California regulation. After studies showed that it carried a health risk and was bioaccumulative, California banned it in 2003 and U.S. manufacturers stopped production in 2004. If your home contains foam rubber in furniture or mattresses, made during this 1980 to 2004 period, your home is probably contaminated .Researchers say that it will take years, perhaps even decades, before these actions are reflected in decreasing human body burdens. Fortunately, the major companies manufacturing electronic products are moving away from use of PBDEs: Dell, Hewlett Packard, Sony, Panasonic, and Phillips have already eliminated PBDEs from their products.

After 2003/2004, PBDE in some foam products was replaced by brominated or chlorinated phosphates called “Tris,” which constituted up to 5% of the weight of the foam. Is Tris safer than the PBDEs they replaced? Consider that Tris had formerly been added to children’s sleep ware (as a fire retardant), but was ultimately banned in the 1970s after it was found to be mutagenic and could be absorbed into children’s bodies.  Fortunately, bedding as a source of PBDE or Tris may be a thing of the past, at least for recent mattresses. According to a 2005 report by the Polyurethane Foam Association, manufacturers have phased out use of PBDEs in foam cushioning.

Three of the largest manufacturers of mattresses, Sealy, Serta, and Simmons, state that their products achieve flammability standards of the Underwriter Laboratories without addition of PBDEs. The majority of pillows appear to contain either polyester fiber or down, rather than polyurethane foam. But ISOPERFECT pillows and ISOTONIC mattress topper pads of the Carpenter Company are made of polyurethane foam, and I have been unable to learn if they contain flame retardants, although the report by the Polyurethane Foam Association implies that current foam products do not contain PBDEs.

Our exposure to PBDEs appears to come through household dust. A recent report describes six classes of toxic chemicals in household dust. Every dust sample contained five common pesticides, flame retardants, phthalates, alkylphenols, organo-tin compounds, and perfluorinated chemicals.  The question is, how does household dust become contaminated by such chemicals? First, know that these PBDE additives are not chemically bound to the plastic molecules, and can therefore diffuse to the surface. In fact, at the molecular level, the surface of plastic can be predominately the PBDE additive. Second, dust particles adhere to all surfaces, where they could absorb contaminants from the surface of the plastic. Third, humans touch, rub, and often “dust” household furnishings. If your hands were not washed before eating food, the invisible contaminated dust or molecular coating of PBDE oil would enter your mouth. Think about that plastic “mouse” next to your computer – that electronic extension of our arm. As we use the mouse our hand is continually rubbing it and removing any molecular film of flame retardant on its surface; it then can diffuse through the skin into our hand, or remain on the skin ready to contaminate the next piece of food we pick up. As the plastic of older mouses contains essentially an endless amount of PBDE, handling it will continue to transfer it to your hand. As you might expect, toddlers who crawl about and put everything into their mouths are particularly susceptible to contamination from PBDE-coated dust.

What to do about this threat to our health? Carefully choose your bedding and furniture, and vacuum the house frequently.

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About donlouis

The author has long had a keen interest in staying healthy and fit, and in doing whatever I can to keep the natural environment unpolluted and a healthy space for people and all animals. As a former Board Member of a municipal water district, I regularly had to deal with the issue of water quality. I first became aware of radiation hazards from toxic materials while working on uranium for nuclear reactors. During the 1960s I was tuned into the global hazard from Strontium 90 raining down from atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs. While working in the chemical industry in later years I became aware of the many forms of chemical contaminants entering the environment every day, and resolved to do something about it. I am able to make sense out of the voluminous descriptions of common toxic chemical because of my training in chemistry, with a Ph.D. degree and several decades of research and development work in the chemical industry. My training and experience enables me to present to readers reliable and current information on the topic of chemical hazards in the environment, and their threats to human health. All my life I have loved hiking and camping in nature. Skiing, river kayaking, and tennis have been my favorite physical activities. Nature photography is my artistic passion.
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