They’re meant to keep you and your family safe from fires, but according to a new study, dozens of flame retardant chemicals linked to cancer could be lurking in the dust throughout your home and in the air you breathe.
Scientists at the Silent Spring Institute detected 44 of 49 fire retardant chemicals they tested for in household dust. Thirty six of the chemicals were found in about half of the samples, sometimes at levels that could jeopardize one’s health. The study is being published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
“Our study found that people are exposed to toxic flame retardants every day. These hazardous chemicals are in the air we breathe, the dust we touch and the couches we sit on,” said Dr. Robin Dodson, a co-author of the study and a scientist with the Silent Spring Institute.
“It is troubling to see that a majority of homes have at least one flame retardant at levels beyond what the federal government says is safe,” said Dodson. “Many flame retardants raise health concerns, including cancer, hormone disruption, and harmful effects on brain development.”
The study included tests of 16 northern California homes in 2006 and 2011. It was conducted in California because furniture manufacturers use flame retardants in products sold throughout the U.S. in order to meet the state’s stricter flammability standard.
But it wasn’t just furniture that contained the dangerous chemicals. The flame retardants found in household dust are also found in textiles, electronics and other products that include carcinogens and chemicals with unknown safety profiles.
The highest concentrations were found for chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants, which are listed as carcinogens under California’s Proposition 65. Another chemical, TDBPP, was banned in children’s pajamas in 1977, but is still allowed in other products. It was present in 75% of the homes tested in 2011.
The study’s authors say that because there are no federal rules requiring that flame retardants be safety tested, when a chemical is banned by a state it sets in motion a series of events that often makes the situation worse.
“When one toxic flame retardant is phased out, it’s being replaced by another chemical we either know is dangerous or suspect may be. It’s not comforting to swap one hazardous chemical for its evil cousin,” said Dr. Julia Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute and co-author of the study.
“My research found that the California fire standard provides no meaningful protection against the hazard it addresses – furniture ignited by small flames,” said Dr. Vytenis Babrauskas, an independent fire safety scientist. “In view of the toxicity of substances put into furniture foam to meet the California standard, the rule does more harm than good.”
A recent study by the University of California, Berkeley found that pre-natal exposure to flame retardant chemicals may harm the development of a child’s brain, resulting in lower IQ’s, shorter attention spans and less coordination.
That study focused on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), flame retardant chemicals widely used in California until they were banned in 2004 because of health concerns. The use of PBDEs increased in the 1970 after a California law went into effect requiring that consumer furnishings be able to withstand a small open flame for 12 seconds without igniting. They are still found in old furniture and other products made before the ban.
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