Flame Retardants: Toxic, Ineffective, Everywhere

The more I learn about synthetic flame retardant chemicals, the happier I am about all the effort I've put into avoiding products that contain them. The Chicago Tribune has been running a fascinating series about flame retardants called Playing with Fire.

Here are 10 interesting takeaways from the Chicago Tribune's coverage of flame retardants (indented passages are quotations from Chicago Tribune articles):

1. Flame retardants cause more harm than good. The evidence regarding the harmful effects of flame retardants is much more extensive and reliable than the evidence for the benefits. Flame retardant chemicals have been linked to neurological deficits, developmental problems, impaired fertility and other health risks.
[S]cientists at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have determined that the flame retardants in household furniture aren't effective, and some pose unnecessary health risks. (source)
The bottom line: Household furniture often contains enough chemicals to pose health threats but not enough to stem fires — "the worst of both possible worlds," [fire scientist Vytenis Babrauskas] said. (source)
2. Flame retardant standards for furnishings were the brain-child of the tobacco industry. The industry came under pressure to create a "fire-safe" cigarette due to the number of fires caused by cigarettes. Fearing that such a cigarette would reduce cigarettes' appeal and cut into their profit, they worked hard (and successfully) to focus attention on creating fire-proof furniture instead.

3. Industry has employed a number of deceptive and questionable tactics in order to prevent reform of flame retardant laws or toxic chemical laws (see below for examples).

4. The chemical industry manipulates research to support use of flame retardants and to downplay the risks of their products. According to the Chicago Tribune, "Industry has disseminated misleading research findings so frequently that they essentially have been adopted as fact. They have been cited by consultants, think tanks, regulators and Wikipedia, and have shaped the worldwide debate about the safety of flame retardants." We've all been duped! Industry makes a number of claims about the benefits of flame retardants (duration until ignition, fires prevented, lives saved, money saved) based on a handful of studies. When the authors of these studies were shown the claims made by the industry based on their work, they said such things as:
"Industry has used this study in ways that are improper and untruthful."
"The worst example I have ever seen of deliberate misinformation and distortion."
"An elaborate, manufactured platform of assumption strings and assertions and extrapolations."
(source for quotes)
5. Industry uses fear based upon questionable testimony to influence legislators. In numerous hearings, industry's star witness Dr. David Heimbach, a burn expert, has described the case of a newborn infant who died as the result of extensive burns. However, medical records show
that the infant did not die under the circumstances Heimbach described, weakening his argument that flame retardants save children’s lives. Heimbach described his various testimony as “an anecdotal story rather than anything which I would say was absolutely true under oath, because I wasn’t under oath.” 
 I found this one particularly distasteful. Distorting the facts surrounding the tragic suffering and death of an infant to suit your own agenda is about as manipulative and calculating as it gets.

6. In order to block reform, industry has created front groups such as Citizens for Fire Safety, which presents itself as "a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders, united to ensure that our country is protected by the highest standards of fire safety."
But public records demonstrate that Citizens for Fire Safety actually is a trade association for chemical companies. Its mission is to "promote common business interests of members involved with the chemical manufacturing industry," tax records show. . .The group has only three members: Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura. . . the [three] largest manufacturers of flame retardant. . . Many of the witnesses supporting flame retardants at these hearings [in state legislatures] were either paid directly by Citizens for Fire Safety or were members of groups that benefited financially from Citizens for Fire Safety's donations, according to tax documents" and other records. (source)
7. Flame retardants are in all of us.
Blood levels of certain widely used flame retardants doubled in adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004. More recent studies show levels haven't declined in the U.S. even though some of the chemicals have been pulled from the market. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world. (source)
8. Flame retardants are hard to avoid. They are found in home insulation, furniture containing polyurethane foam, plastic casing of some electronics, carpet padding, baby products such as changing pads and nursing pillows, mattresses, and dust. Labels are often of little help in selecting safe products (use of flame retardants is not disclosed on many products, and even if the product label does suggest the presence of flame retardant, the type of flame retardant used is rarely specified).

9. To avoid exposure to flame retardants, wash your hands. One expert believes inhaling and eating dust constitutes our principal pathway of exposure. Since children spend lots of time on the floor and put their hands in their mouth all the time, they consume a lot more dust and have higher concentrations of flame retardants in their bodies. This is bad news for those us who are so-so housekeepers. Be particularly conscientious about washing your hands after handling dryer lint, since experts find that dryer lint contains especially large amounts of flame retardants.

10. The United States' current chemical safety law
allows manufacturers to sell products without proving they are safe and to treat the formulas as trade secrets [which limits others' ability to investigate their safety]. Once health effects are documented, the law makes it almost impossible for the EPA to ban chemicals.

A growing list of critics — including the nation's leading group of pediatricians and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress — are calling for a sweeping overhaul of the law. . . "By the time the scientific community catches up to one chemical, industry moves on to another and they go back to their playbook of delay and denial," said Deborah Rice, a former EPA toxicologist who works for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (source)

Surprised? Concerned? Outraged? Email your representatives expressing support for toxic chemical reform!

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  1. Thanks for this great post. I'm wondering if you can clarify something for me. Is polyurethane foam still toxic even if it's not treated with flame retardants? I have pillows with foam inside, but the label doesn't indicate they been treated with flame retardants. I'm so paranoid about using them and completely confused on this polyurethane crap. Thanks for any information you can provide!!

    1. According to Smart Mama (Jennifer Taggart) almost all foam is treated with flame retardants, even when completely unneeded. Often the manufacturer is not even aware. It seems that pretty much all foam just comes treated automatically. She said she has found flame retardants in the foam in dollhouse furniture, for example (she has the equipment to test for it).

      I always assume foam has flame retardants in it, whether the product is subject to regulation or not.

      And, yes, foam is bad for other reasons. Polyurethane foam is made from nonrenewable petrochemicals and can emit volatile organic compounds, which have been linked to respiratory irritation and other health problems. Over time, foam also sheds tiny particles that become part of your household dust and are easily inhaled.

      But, if it makes you feel better, it still have many things made with foam (glider, sofas, etc.) that i haven't gotten rid of. But no one in my family sleeps on it. I would not sleep on a foam pillow.


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