It is a terrible thing to die in a house fire and for many years building codes have required fire alarms. Flame retardants, chemicals which inhibit a fire from starting, have been a component of clothing and furniture for many years. Many of our customers have expressed an appropriate level of concern about their effect on health. Here’s a fairly brief introduction to flame retardants, their health effects and what you can do. Caveat: I am not a scientist so all the facts here are gathered from outside sources.
What Are They and How Do They Work
One of the first fire retardants in popular use was polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs). Odorless, tasteless PCBs easily penetrat latex, polyvinyl chloride, foam and, sadly, skin. Since the 1930’s it has been known that it accumulates in body fat (and transmitted to infants through breast feeding) and can inhibit and imitate the main sex hormone in females, feed estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells, cause rashes, fatigue, headaches and coughs. The US Congress banned production in 1979.
This was followed by a rash of other chemicals. In 1975, California began implementing Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), which requires that materials such as polyurethane foam used to fill furniture be able to withstand a small open flame, equivalent to a candle, for at least 12 seconds. In polyurethane foam, furniture manufacturers typically meet TB 117 with additive halogenated organic flame retardants. Although no other U.S. states have a similar standard, because California has such a large market, many manufacturers meet TB 117 in products that they distribute across the United States. The proliferation of flame retardants, and especially halogenated organic flame retardants, in furniture across the United States is strongly linked to TB 117 (cf. Wikipedia).
These chemicals work by interfering with the oxygen, reducing the ability for combustion. Several studies in the 1980s tested ignition in whole pieces of furniture with different upholstery and filling types, including different flame retardant formulations. In particular, they looked at maximum heat release and time to maximum heat release, two key indicators of fire danger. These studies found that the type of fabric covering had a large influence on ease of ignition, that cotton fillings were much less flammable than polyurethane foam fillings, and that an interliner material substantially reduced the ease of ignition (cf. Wikipedia), however these are not currently standards for furniture manufacturing or sale.
Are they harmful?
According to a Seattle Times article, nearly all Americans have some trace amounts of flame retardants in their bodies. This is mostly from the dust from TVs & computers. From a recent visit to LOTT, I learned that they go through the water treatment plant and into the Sound unchanged.
A longitudinal study of 329 mothers found that children with higher levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) scored lower on tests of mental and motor development at 1–4 and 6 years of age.
What can you do about it?
This checklist is cited from the Department of Health in Washington state.
- Cleaning - PBDEs in indoor dust is one of the primary sources of people's exposure. Reduce your exposure to indoor dust. Use a damp cloth to dust indoor living and working areas. Avoid stirring the dust into the air. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Open windows and doors while you clean. Wash hands after dusting and cleaning.
- Foam products - New foam items that you purchase today are unlikely to contain PBDEs. However, mattresses, mattress pads, couches, easy chairs, foam pillows, carpet padding, and other foam products purchased before 2005 likely contain PBDEs. Replace older foam products that have ripped covers or foam that is misshapen or breaking down. If you can't replace the item, try to keep the covers intact. When removing old carpet foam, keep the work area sealed from other areas of the house, avoid breathing in the dust, and use a HEPA-filter vacuum for cleanup.
- Electronics - Deca-BDE has been used in electronics for years but is now being phased out of most electronics. When purchasing electronics, request products that contain no Deca-BDE or other bromine-containing fire retardants.
- Foods - PBDEs can concentrate in the fat of poultry, red meat, fish and other fatty meats. See how to reduce the fat when preparing and cooking fish (these tips can be applied to other meats). Wash hands before preparing and eating food.
- Disposal and recycling - PBDEs will continue to pollute the environment unless flame retardant products are disposed of properly. To keep PBDEs out of the environment, dispose of foam containing products and electronics such as TVs and computers at your nearest hazardous waste collection site.
My personal opinion, and others will disagree, is that, generally speaking, any chemical for which you need an acronym (PCB, DDT, et. al.) is probably not good for you. I suspect there is a cumulative effect to the toxins we ingest and we do well to avoid them. That said, not every toxin is avoidable and that as long as we are cautious our health will be better.
As for the industry? I think there is clear evidence that flame retardants are not going away but that they are becoming less dangerous.