Flame Retardants Don’t Stop Fire, Can Cause Illness

Ken Spaeth, MD

Brominated flame retardants are back in the news, thanks to a recent series in the Chicago Tribune and a New York Times Op-Ed column. Though their purported function is noble—to limit flammability, thereby reducing harm—brominated flame retardants (sometimes called PBDEs) pose risks of their own. 

Evidence already shows that exposure to these chemicals is linked to cancer in animals and, in humans, with endocrine disruption--dysregulation of sex steroids levels, dysregulation of thyroid hormone—plus fetal abnormalities and neurocognitive and neurobehavioral abnormalities. And exposure to flame retardants is pretty much guaranteed, since they are everywhere: in furniture, cell phones, laptops, microwaves, car dashboards and remote controls, to name a few places.
 
Though the use of brominated flame retardants is relatively new, their chemical structure is remarkably similar to such toxins as dioxins and PCBs—older compounds notorious for permanently harming both people and the environment. This is alarming, because sampling data in the US and Europe show that we all have significant levels of flame retardants in our bodies since the chemicals move easily from household products onto hands and into household dust and the air. Once in our environment, flame retardants work their way into food--vegetables, dairy, fish and most of all, meat. Flame retardants even accumulate in breast milk and contaminate fetuses via the placenta.
 
Separate tests by Underwriters Laboratories and the Consumer Product Safety Commission show there is no proof that flame retardants actually impede or stop fire, so the ongoing use of these harmful compounds is puzzling, to say the least. Europe has banned numerous flame retardants, while states such as California, Washington and a few others closely regulate them; New York State has enacted some restrictions concerning their use in manufacturing. While such regulations are helpful, chemical manufacturers often circumvent their usefulness by substituting unregulated but equally hazardous compounds in their products.
 
How to Protect Against Brominated Fire Retardants at Home:
  • Reduce exposure to flame retardants via regular cleaning with a HEPA filter-equipped vacuum
  • Encourage manufacturers to switch away from brominated flame retardants. Support the ones that do.
  • Let your senators know you support proactive legislation such as the Safe Chemicals Act of 2012 (S,847).
  • Educate yourself on how brominated flame retardants/PBDEs and other chemicals can hurt you.
For a consultation on assessing and managing exposure, contact the North Shore-LIJ Occupational and Environmental Medicine Center.
 
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Author

Ken Spaeth, MD ,
Director, Occupational and Environmental Medicine Center
North Shore-LIJ Health System
*Disclaimer: The medical content on the North Shore-LIJ Health Blog is for informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for consultation with your physician regarding diagnosis, treatment or any other form of specific medical advice. More...
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