Friday, June 15, 2012

Like it or Not, Flame Retardants are Everywhere.

I am appalled at the amount of things which contain flame retardants.  It seems to be ubiquitous and almost unavoidable these days...  Many of the items around your home probably contain this label (even if you don't live in the state of California):

Label indicating this product meets "Technical Bulletin 117"
What is "Technical Bulletin 117?"  The California Bureau of Electronic Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation "requires manufacturers to make upholstered furniture and bedding products sold in California flame-retardant. In the event of a residential fire, these products act as a significant fuel source and are difficult to extinguish once ignited. The Bureau measures flame retardance in accordance with flammability standards developed by the Bureau or the United States, Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC)."  Technical Bulletin 117 requires manufacturers of upholstered furniture and bedding products sold in California to meet "flammability standards."  They "do not prescribe the use of flame-retardant chemicals, manufacturing methods, or specific materials to meet the standards. The Bureau encourages the industry to use innovative solutions and products to achieve flame resistance without compromising the environment."  The bulletin basically requires that products are able to be exposed to an open flame for 12 seconds without igniting.  Since it is impossible to determine if a manufactured item will be sold in California, many manufacturers have adopted this standard to apply to all of their products regardless of where it will be ultimately sold.

While the bulletin does not "prescribe the use of flame retardant chemicals," many manufacturers have turned to brominated flame retardants (BFR).  One of the most common BFR in use are Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is "concerned that certain PBDE congeners are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment. The critical endpoint of concern for human health is neurobehavioral effects. Various PBDEs have also been studied for ecotoxicity in mammals, birds, fish, and invertebrates. In some cases, current levels of exposure for wildlife may be at or near adverse effect levels.  PBDEs are not chemically bound to plastics, foam, fabrics, or other products in which they are used, making them more likely to leach out of these products."

A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that despite the widespread use of brominated flame retardants, "there is clearly a need for more systematic environmental and human monitoring to understand how and where these chemicals are being released into the environment, and what is happening to them once they enter the environment.  Our toxicology database is inadequate to truly understand the risk. Many of the studies that do exist involve the commercial mixtures, which do not represent human exposure. We need studies that focus on the congeners, and potentially their metabolites and/or breakdown products, present in people and wildlife in order to understand the risk from exposure to BFRs."

Despite the lack of studies, it is believed that BFRs may cause "thyroid hormone disruption, permanent learning and memory impairment, behavioral changes, hearing deficits, delayed puberty onset, decreased sperm count, fetal malformations and, possibly, cancer.  Many of the known health effects of PBDEs are thought to stem from their ability to disrupt the body's thyroid hormone balance, by depressing levels of the T3 and T4 hormones, which are important to normal metabolism."  

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) conducted a study on nursing mothers to determine the levels of brominated flame retardants in breastmilk.  The study found that "the average level of bromine-based fire retardants in the milk of 20 first-time mothers was 75 times the average found in recent European studies. Milk from two study participants contained the highest levels of fire retardants ever reported in the United States, and milk from several of the mothers in EWG's study had among the highest levels of these chemicals yet detected worldwide."  Despite these findings, it is still more important to breastfeed your baby than not.    

The problem with Technical Bulletin 117 is that manufacturers have taken things further by treating many things that are not an upholstered furniture item or bedding product with flame-retardant chemicals.  I have found them on my baby's pajamas and even his nursing pillow!

Label on my baby's pajamas indicating it is "flame resistant"  
I was even horrified to find that my "organic" baby mattress contained flame retardants!

I find it upsetting that I am constantly exposing myself and my children to chemicals that have not been proven to be safe and may be causing harm.  After learning more about flame retardants, I read labels on all of the products that I buy to make sure they do not have flame retardants on them.  Why would I want my children exposed to the unnecessary chemicals?  While it may lengthen the time for something to catch on fire, the smoke produced once it does burn is more toxic and can cause more harm than the fire itself since most fire-related fatalities are due to smoke inhalation.  It just makes no sense.  I wish we could have more options that are not treated with flame retardants.  

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