Toxic Flame Retardants (PBDEs)

Factsheet courtesy of the Washington Toxics Coalition.

A Burning Problem In Our Bodies

PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are industrial toxic chemicals, used for more than 30 years, to retard flame in consumer electronic plastics, furniture, and mattresses.

About PBDEs

There are three common mixtures of these chemicals — penta, octa, and deca.

  • Penta and octa are no longer produced in the U.S., but millions of pounds remain in homes, offices, and the environment due to extensive use in consumer products.
  • Deca is still used widely, with about 50 million pounds a year in the U.S. used primarily in television casings. Deca is also approved for use in residential upholstered furniture and mattresses to meet flame retardant standards.
  • Deca has been shown to break down into penta and octa.

How am I exposed?

A number of studies have found PBDEs in house dust as well as indoor air, which is considerably more contaminated with these chemicals than outdoor air. It is likely that PBDEs migrate out of products like furniture and electronics and wind up in house dust. Studies in the U.S., Europe, and Asia have found PBDEs in fish, meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and infant formula.

Why should I be concerned?

  • PBDES are in blood, breastmilk, and umbilical cord blood.
  • Laboratory animals exposed to PBDEs show deficits in learning and memory.
  • PBDEs affect thryroid levels in laboratory animals and in wildlife, and may cause birth defects.

What can government and industry do?

Eight U.S. states have passed legislation to ban Penta and Octa PBDEs, and several states have passed laws to ban Deca including Vermont, Washington, Oregon, and Maine. Legislation is pending in several other states.

In December 2009, the only two U.S. makers of Deca and the largest importer of Deca voluntarily agreed to stop producing and importing Deca for most uses by 2011, and to stop producing and importing the chemical for all uses by 2013. Despite the voluntary phaseout, government bans are critical to ensure the agreement is enforceable and any chemical flame retardant substitutes are safer. Specifically:

  • States should continue to pass enforceable bans on PBDEs.
  • Congress should pass a national ban on PBDEs.
  • Congress should reform the outdated Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA) to immediately phase out chemicals we know are harmful and found in our bodies, like PBDEs.
  • State and local governments, and other large purchasers of products should buy PBDE-free products and require, as part of contracts, disclosure of chemical flame retardants in products.
  • Companies should replace PBDEs with safer alternatives that include design changes, better material choices, or safer chemical flame retardants.
  • Companies should also disclose chemical flame retardant information for products.

Reducing your exposure to PBDEs

You can take the following steps to reduce your family’s exposure to PBDEs:

Buy PBDE-free furniture. Choose furniture that does not contain PBDEs, which are often used in furniture upholstery and foam. Retailers offering PBDE-free products include:

For more information on companies offering PBDE-free products, see:

If you cannot find information on whether a manufacturer uses PBDEs, contact the company directly.

If you already own furniture that contains PBDEs, cover and seal any rips in upholstery, and consider replacing old items where foam is exposed, loose, and crumbling. Cover mattresses with allergen-barrier casings to reduce the amount of PBDE-laden dust that they release.

Make electronics PBDE-free. Choose electronics made with alternatives to PBDEs and other flame retardants, available from Apple and Sony. See Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics for up-to-date information on companies.

Avoid farmed fish. European and U.S. farmed salmon have particularly high levels of PBDEs. Choose wild salmon instead.

Reduce animal fats. Choose lean meat and poultry cuts and low-fat dairy products. Cut visible fat off meat and poultry before cooking, and choose lower-fat cooking methods, such as broiling, grilling, roasting, or pressure-cooking.

Additional Resources