They may do more harm than good
Daniela Ginta, MSc
Deisgned to protect us from fire, flame retardants coat many surfaces our kids come in contact with. Discover where they're found.
We long ago learned fire’s many uses. But we also soon learned to fear its deadly nature. Modern science has offered us reassurance in the form of flame retardants. But, given the toxic effects of some of these substances on people and wildlife, are they the best way to offer fire protection?
Protection from flames
In 450 BC, Egyptians used alum to reduce the flammability of wood. Romans fire-proofed wood by treating it with vinegar and alum. The first fire retardant, a mixture of alum, borax, and ferrous sulphate, was created in 1735 by Obadiah Wyld.
Fast forward to modern times when more than 175 types of flame retardant chemicals are being used, some chemically bonded into plastic, others simply coating various items.
Ubiquitous and toxic
Everyday products such as computers, TVs, telephones, sofas, mattresses, curtains, carpets, paints, and car seats surround us in a cloud of chemicals—literally. These chemicals are supposed to confer safety against fires, yet they are harmful to people and the environment.
According to Miriam Diamond, University of Toronto professor and head of the Diamond Environmental Research Group, there is not enough data analysis to confirm that flame retardants are actually responsible for decreasing fire-related deaths in recent years.
“It’s purely circumstantial evidence that the industry is using at the moment: A decrease in fire deaths is coincidental with the use of flame retardants,” Diamond explains.
At least 210 researchers from 30 countries back up Diamond. They have all signed the “San Antonio Statement,” published in the December 2010 issue of Environmental Health Perspective, which brings to light the toxic effects of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants.
Are they also useless?
In order to be effective at repelling flames, the concentration of flame retardant chemicals must be much higher than those found in domestic products. While they are life-saving for firefighters or soldiers at these higher concentrations, flame retardants, because they’re used in much lower concentrations in consumer products, do more harm than good to the average consumer.
Found all over
Flame retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) first raised environmental concerns in the 1970s when they were detected in samples taken from around manufacturing sites, but also from as far away as the Arctic Ocean.
Fish and shellfish seem to be most contaminated, but so are fish-eating birds and other marine mammals that rely on fish for sustenance. Seal pups that migrate with their mothers to the Strait of Georgia show higher concentrations of PDBEs in their blubber than the parents.
Humans are not spared either. Flame retardants are found everywhere in our homes, says Diamond: “In the dust and virtually on every surface in our homes.”
At-risk population groups
According to an article published in 2007, the analysis of breast milk from mothers in the Pacific Northwest revealed that PBDEs were present in 40 percent of the samples. The widespread presence of these new pollutants surpassed even polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), another toxic, persistent organic pollutant long since banned, but still found in our environment.
The most at-risk population groups are young children, given their high levels of exposure, including through products such as car seats and nursing pillows. But, Diamond points out, “many of the adverse health effects are caused by in utero exposure.” Reducing exposure to children is helpful, she says, but pregnancy exposure should also be considered.
“Flame retardants do not stay in the air; they get into dust,” explains Diamond. Because we’re constantly touching surfaces where these chemicals are found, our hands pick them up. That points to another exposure route: ingestion.
In other words, we breathe them in, we pick them up on our skin, and we eat them. Being fat soluble, PBDEs accumulate, and their large size means slow elimination from the body. Studies have revealed that younger individuals have higher concentrations than adults.
PBDE exposure has been associated with motor function problems as well as changes in the levels of thyroid hormones in teenagers. Other studies have shown that PBDEs, in conjunction with PCBs, enhance the neurobehavioural defects caused by the first.
PBDEs are linked to endocrine disruptions: some classes of PBDEs were shown to have anti-androgenic effects while others affected the estrogen hormones. Other studies linked PBDE exposure to decreased fertility (reduced sperm count in male rats and ovarian structure alteration in females).
Other multiple studies have now demonstrated a clear association between PBDE flame retardants and thyroid problems. The effects are seen in people, wildlife, and laboratory rats, and the highest concentrations are usually associated with the most dramatic effects on the thyroid function.
Discarded, recycled harm
Diamond warns against second-hand and upholstered furniture and also recycling of electronics that may contain the now-banned flame retardants. Many developing countries are now receiving heaps of discarded electronics.
Disassembling these products releases harmful chemicals and affects the health of those exposed, but given their environmental pervasiveness, PBDEs are bound to reach us again and haunt us further.
Are we being protected?
TCEP [tris] is a chemical flame retardant often used in polyurethane foam and found in furniture, mattresses, electronics, adhesives, non-apparel textiles, carpet backing, rubber and plastics, and paints and varnishes.
Last November the federal government introduced a regulatory amendment that prohibits products for children under three that are made from TCEP-containing polyurethane foam. While the amendment reduces children’s exposure to TCEP, there are many other sources of exposure.
According to Health Canada, “TCEP may be harmful to human health as it is a carcinogen and may cause impaired fertility,” so whether you’re three or older, chances are you’re sitting on some chemicals right now, or breathing them in.
Although two of the most used PBDEs, pentaBDE and octaBDE, have been banned from use in Canada, they can still find their way here through goods imported to Canada. A third one, decaBDE, has been phased out in many countries, and it is no longer manufactured in Canada. But according to the latest Environment Canada report, Human Health State of the Science Report on decaBDE, published in December 2012, decaBDE has not been banned completely.
The good news is that while government agencies can dawdle in addressing and imposing strict regulations on chemicals such as these, the industry is voluntarily adopting and enforcing phase-out policies for some harmful flame retardant chemicals.
Diamond’s advice: spend as much time as possible outside, keep the windows open, buy fewer electronics and plastic items, and dust often. Sadly, dust bunnies are no longer cute.
How to avoid flame retardants
Furniture and mattresses
Carpets, curtains, and paints
Many companies plan to phase out PBDEs from their products by 2014. A good reference is the market report called Electronics without Brominated Flame Retardants and PVC by the International Chemical Secretariat (chemsec.org).
Skip plastic. Wooden toys with safe paints are the best choice.