Escaping from TVs, electrical and electronic products and children’s car seats, new flame retardants are actually are just as toxic as the flame retardants they’re intended to replace, according to a new study, which found the new chemicals can be associated with serious health harms.
Flame retardant chemicals aren’t necessary, or even effective, for reducing fire hazard in many products. These chemicals are added to meet flammability regulations. But research shows they often delay ignition only a few seconds and make fires more dangerous.
Dangerous flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were phased out of use in furniture foam, electronics, and children’s products. While this was initially celebrated as a victory for human health, PBDEs have been swapped out with organophosphate flame retardants in many products.
The new flame retardants migrate out of products and drop into the dust. When dust contaminated with flame retardants gets on your hands, you can end up eating the flame retardants along with your sandwich. Levels of the new flame retardants are often 10 to 100 times higher in air, dust, and water than the previous flame retardants.
“These results show the danger of the whack-a-mole approach to chemical policy,” said Dr. Marta Venier, an Associate Scientist at Indiana University. “When manufacturers have to stop using a toxic chemical, they often replace it with a similar chemical with similar harms. In the case of flame retardants, we’re jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.”
The investigators reviewed nearly one hundred peer-reviewed scientific papers on flame retardants. They compared research findings on the health effects, environmental harms, and chemical properties of the older PBDEs and newer organophosphates.
They found that the replacement chemicals are carried by wind and water far from their origin — even to the ocean depths, icy mountain tops, and Earth’s poles. Based on the results, they called manufacturers to increase fire safety in furniture, electronics, and children’s products with creative designs and inherently fire-resistant materials.
“It’s disheartening that after years of health harm to our children from PBDE flame retardants, the most widely used replacements appear to be just as bad,” said Dr. Arlene Blum, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute. “To protect future generations, manufacturers can and must stop the cycle of toxic substitutions and avoid unneeded flame retardants altogether.”