7 Simple Ways to Reduce Your Family's Exposure to Toxic Flame Retardants

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Flame retardant chemicals are Persistent Organic Pollutants, meaning that they are toxic, persistent, bioaccumulative, and capable of long-range transport from their original source (flame retardants have been found in high concentrations in polar bears and the Inuit people). They have been linked to "cancer, neurological deficits, developmental problems and impaired fertility" (source). Fetuses and young children are particularly susceptible to their effects. They are also nearly impossible to avoid.

Flame retardants are found in furniture containing polyurethane foam, baby products made with polyurethane foam (crib mattresses, changing pads, nursing pillows, etc.), home insulation, the plastic casing of some electronics, and in carpet padding made with recycled foam (see this helpful graphic). Flame retardant chemicals escape from these products and end up in household dust. That dust can then end up on your hands and food, and eventually in your mouth. Scientists believe that most people's principal exposure to flame retardant chemicals is through ingestion of dust. In fact, research by flame retardant expert Heather Stapleton found that the amount of flame retardant chemicals on toddlers' hands was a good predictor for the levels in their blood (suggesting that hand-to-mouth may be the biggest exposure pathway).

According to the Green Science Policy Institute, "The best way to reduce exposure to flame retardants is to remove products containing them from your indoor environments." Unfortunately, replacing an old sofa, purchasing a less toxic crib mattress, and switching from carpet to hardwood floors are not within most families' budgets.

Here are some simple, low cost steps you can take right now to limit your family's exposure to toxic flame retardants.

7 Simple Ways to Reduce Your Family's Exposure to Flame Retardants

Wash hands frequently and especially before meals.
Many experts believe ingestion of household dust is the biggest exposure pathway. By washing hands frequently, you can limit the amount of dust that makes it into our family's bodies.

Handle dryer lint carefully.
Dryer lint is loaded with all kinds of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants, that have migrated from household products to dust. I treat mine like toxic waste. Always wash your hands after handling dryer lint and be careful how you dispose of it (I have a trash can right behind my washer that only an adult can access). Never let small children clean the lint trap or play with dryer lint.

Repair damaged foam furniture.
Sofas, chairs, or other products that have exposed foam should be discarded or repaired immediately.

Reduce household dust by frequently dusting, vacuuming, and wet mopping.  
Flame retardant chemicals escape from foam products and electronics and end up in your household dust. Remove dust frequently from the floor and surfaces to keep it off of little hands and out of little mouths. Use a damp cloth to dust and vacuum with a HEPA filter to insure you are removing the dust and not just moving it around. If, like me, you are a lackluster house cleaner, focus on removing dust frequently from surfaces and objects that your children come into contact with most often, such as the play room floor or the crib railing your baby often mouths.

Avoid using baby gear with polyurethane foam.
Any baby gear containing foam (changing pads, high chairs, infant car seats, crib mattress, nursing pillow) should be suspect unless you can verify that it is free of flame retardants. Consider using the high chair without the foam pad, or changing your baby's diaper on a towel on the bed or floor instead of on a foam changing pad. Don't use an infant car seat as a baby carrier or bed on a regular basis if you can avoid it. [Note: Many types of children's products are now exempt from California's TB117, meaning that the manufacturers no longer need to add chemical flame retardants to comply with the regulation. Manufacturers may still be using the chemicals, however, so always verify that foam products are flame retardant free before purchasing. Child safety seats for vehicles fall under a federal flame retardant standard and are not part of the TB117 exemption.]

Don't let small children mouth or play with electronic devices (remotes, phones, tablets, computers).
Easier said than done, right? My kids definitely handle and use electronic devices on occasion, but I try not to let them play with them (in unintended ways) or stick them in their mouths.

Vacuum and wipe down the interior of your car, and minimize the time you spend there. 
The seats of your vehicle are made with polyurethane foam and are full of flame retardants. Infant car seats, booster seats, and other child safety seats must comply with flame retardant regulation and are also treated with flame retardant chemicals (with few exceptions). For this reason, I try to avoid spending time in the car when we aren't driving. Although many parents love to use infant car seats to carry and set down babies, I recommend using infant car seats only while driving and for nothing else. I also try to have my kids wash their hands whenever we arrive home after driving. We've usually come from a pretty germy place with lots of kids anyway, and hand-washing removes all the car dust (full of flame retardants, stain-resistant chemicals, and other fun stuff) from their hands as well as the germs.

What steps do you take to reduce your exposure to flame retardants?

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