Meet the Flame Retardants

Flame Retardants Health Effects: Altered development of the brain, loss of IQ points

A large family that includes PBDEs, brominated flame retardants, chlorinated flame retardants, TDCP, and TCEP.


The Flame Retardants family is full of contradiction and mystery. On the one hand, they slow fires. On the other hand, their presence in everyday items like couch cushions has been linked to cancer and learning problems. They are brave, yet clingy — scientists can measure their residue in human bodies years after exposure. Most intriguing characteristic? Some branches of the family have been restricted, yet other equally toxic cousins are still on the loose.

How to avoid

1. There’s no sure-fire way to avoid unsafe flame retardants until Congress passes legislation that will require chemical manufacturers to demonstrate that their products are safe before they end up in our furniture, computers, and bodies.

Until then...

2. Make sure your living quarters are adequately protected with sprinklers, smoke detectors, and use common sense.

3. Replace furniture with ripped or torn upholstery that exposes the foam interior.

4. Avoid furniture that says it meets the CA flame retardant standard TB 117. This is an outdated standard that requires excessive amounts of flame retardant chemicals to be added to furniture foam.

5. Buy furniture and textiles made from natural fibers like wool, jute or cotton – these materials are more naturally flame-resistant than synthetic fibers and require fewer chemical additives to meet flammability standards.

6. To cut down on dust exposure to these chemicals: mop your floors, dust frequently with a damp cloth or microfiber cloth, and use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.

7. Before buying electronics, check with the manufacturer to see if they have pledged to phase out the use of unsafe flame retardants.

Frequent hangouts

Strollers, nursing pillows, couches, chairs, sofa beds, back-coating of carpets and upholstery, cell phones, TVs, computers and other electronics, and automobile cushioning.

Why they're dangerous

Various members of the family are linked to serious trouble like cancer, reduced fertility, thyroid hormone disruption, and lower IQ. Researchers estimate that children can ingest up to ten times as much of these chemicals as adults do because of their tendency to put their hands and other objects into their mouths, and because they spend time close to the ground.

Fun fact

In the 1970s, manufacturers added the flame retardant chemical TDCP, also known as “chlorinated tris,” to children’s sleepwear. They had to stop in 1977 after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission determined ‘tris’ to be a probable human carcinogen. And yet today, because the Commission didn’t specify any other products, manufacturers continue to add toxic ‘tris’ to baby nursery items, strollers, and nursing pillows.

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