Flame retardants are added to products to meet flammability standards. They often don’t improve fire safety and can harm our health.
What are they?
Flame retardants are chemicals that are supposed to slow ignition and prevent fires. They are used to meet flammability regulations. Flame retardants of concern include organohalogen and organophosphate chemicals such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and chlorinated tris (TDCPP).
Flame retardants are used in furniture, children’s products, electronics, building materials, wire and cable, etc. Learn more about products that may contain flame retardants.
What are the health concerns?
Some flame retardants are associated with lowered IQ and hyperactivity in children as well as cancer, hormone disruption, and decreased fertility in adults.
How are we exposed?
Flame retardants continually migrate out of products and into indoor dust which is ingested by people. Flame retardants have been detected in the bodies of nearly all people tested. Due to hand-to-mouth behavior and crawling, toddlers have the highest levels. Additionally, because of widespread environmental contamination, flame retardants are found in our food supply.
What are the environmental concerns?
Flame retardants are released from products into soil, rivers, and oceans where they are persistent pollutants and can bioaccumulate up food chains. These chemicals are found at particularly high levels in marine mammals and can be associated with adverse health effects in these and other species.
Should they be used?
The use of flame retardants in furniture, children’s products, electronics enclosures, and building materials provides limited fire safety benefit. For example, research shows they often delay ignition only a few seconds and can make a fire more toxic. Preventing ignition with fire-safe products such as cigarettes, candles, lighters and smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, etc. is a more effective and healthier way to prevent fires. When flame retardants are indeed necessary, manufacturers should develop more benign alternatives through materials innovation and green chemistry.
What Can You Do?
When buying upholstered furniture, look for a TB117-2013 label stating the item does not contain flame retardants.
Replace upholstered furniture with a TB117 label.
To reduce indoor dust levels, vacuum with a HEPA filter, wet mop, dust with a damp cloth.
Wash hands often, especially before eating or preparing food.
Avoid using rebonded carpet padding made from recycled or scrap polyurethane foam.
Tell manufacturers, retailers, and government agencies you want products without flame retardants.
Other Videos on Flame Retardants
Webcast introducing the new Flame Retardants video featuring conversation with Ken Cook, Mark Leno, and Arlene Blum.
Introduction to Flame Retardants: Arlene Blum, Green Science Policy Institute
Materials & Health: Reducing the Use of Flame Retardants and the “Six Classes” of Harmful Chemicals
Where have all the toxic chemicals gone? Arlene Blum at TEDxWellesleyCollege
- The San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame RetardantsThe San Antonio Statement documents the scientific consensus about health, environmental and fire safety concerns associated with the use of organohalogen flame retardants. This consensus statement has over 200 signatories from 30 countries, representing expertise on health, environment and fire safety.
- Petition to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to Ban Consumer Products with Halogenated Flame RetardantsThis groundbreaking petition asks the CPSC ban four classes of consumer products containing organohalogen or organophosphate flame retardants. It was initiated by the Green Science Policy Institute in collaboration with Earthjustice and joined by 10 health and safety organizations. (Press Release)
- Halogenated Flame Retardants: Do the Fire Safety Benefits Justify the Risks? – Our interdisciplinary peer-reviewed paper published in Reviews on Environmental Health examines the major uses and known toxic effects of commonly-used halogenated flame retardants and their by-products.
- Reducing Flame Retardants in Building Insulation to Protect Public Health – This policy statement by the American Public Health Association explains how all foam plastic building insulation in the United States contains problematic flame retardant chemicals, documents their lack of proven fire safety benefit, and recommends building code changes that would make the use of these chemicals unnecessary.
- You asked: can my couch give me cancer? Time, 8/24/2016.
- A flame retardant that came with its own threat to health. New York Times, 5/3/2015.
- Safety groups petition consumer bureau to ban flame retardant products. The Hill, 3/31/2015.
- Do we need flame retardants in electronics? Scientific American, 1/28/2014.
- Law may cut use of flame retardants in buildings. San Francisco Chronicle, 10/8/2013.
- How dangerous is your couch? New York Times Magazine, 9/6/2012.
- Playing with fire. Chicago Tribune, 5/6/2012.
- Did the state kill my cat? Los Angeles Times, 10/17/2008.