Flame retardants

Match with flame

Girl laying on couch

What are flame retardants?

Flame retardants are chemicals added to materials to slow or prevent the start or growth of fire. Flame retardants have been used in many consumer and industrial products since the 1970s. You can be exposed to flame retardants in a variety of ways:

  • Dust. House dust is one of the main ways people are exposed to these chemicals. Chemicals can leak from products and get into the air and on dust. Dust can get on hands and food then be consumed by touching the mouth or eating.
  • Furnishings: Foam, upholstery, mattresses, carpets, curtains and fabric blinds
  • Electronics and electrical devices: Computers, laptops, phones, televisions and household appliances, plus wires and cables
  • Building and construction materials: Electrical wires and cables, and insulation such as polystyrene and polyurethane foams
  • Transportation products: Seats, seat covers and fillings, bumpers, overhead compartments, and other parts of automobiles, airplanes, and trains
  • The elements. Chemicals can get into the air, water and soil during manufacturing processes, through e-waste or uncontrolled burning and dismantling of electronic and electric waste.

What chemicals are in flame retardants?

There are hundreds of different chemicals that act as flame retardants. They’re usually broken into types based on chemical structure and whether they contain bromine, chlorine, phosphorus, nitrogen, metals or boron.

Brominated flame retardants — These chemicals contain bromine and are the most common flame retardants. You can find them in many consumer goods such as electronics, furniture and building materials.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s) — PBDEs don’t chemically bind with the products they’re added to like furniture and electronics, so the chemicals are easily released into the air and dust.

Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) — TBBPAs are widely used to make computer circuit boards and electronics. They’re also used in some textiles and paper, or combined with other flame retardants.

Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) — HBCD is primarily used in polystyrene foam building materials. The primary risk to humans is from leaching out of products and getting into indoor dust. Low levels of HBCD have also been found in some food products.

Organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs) — Some OPFRs are replacing PBDEs, which are being phased out.

Are flame retardants toxic?

Although flame retardants are helpful to have in some products, many of these chemicals are associated with health problems, including:

  • Endocrine disruption
  • Thyroid problems
  • Immune system dysfunction
  • Fertility issues
  • Developmental problems in children
  • Neurologic dysfunction
  • Cancer

Many flame retardants are no longer produced but since they don’t break down easily they’re still in the environment. They also bio-accumulate by building up in people and animals over time.

Research shows that children have a higher concentration of flame retardants in their body than adults. Hand-to-mouth behavior and being closer to the floor where dust is likely increases the potential for exposure. Unfortunately, children are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of these chemicals because their brain and other organs are still developing.

How can I reduce my exposure to flame retardants?

  • Keep dust levels down, by wet mopping and vacuuming with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to help remove any contaminants from your home.
  • Wash your hands and those of your children often.
  • Purchase baby products and furniture filled with cotton, polyester or wool instead of polyurethane foam.
  • Have a good ventilation system in your home to reduce dust.

This information is based an article about flame retardants by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.