Flame Retardants

About Flame Retardants
Flame retardants include a wide variety of chemical compounds that are used to slow the spread of fires in consumer products and in residential and commercial buildings. Unfortunately, they are linked to health problems and for decades were used in such a way that they did little to stop fires. Recent updates to fire codes in California and other parts of the country have made it so that many products can now be made without flame retardants.

How am I exposed?
Toxic flame retardants are often added to products made using polyurethane foam such as highchairs, car seats, nursing pads, furniture, and carpet pads.  They are also used electronic equipment, including toys, computers and cell phones. Flame retardants do not stay in the products; they get out into the dust in our homes and the air that we breathe, and ultimately into our bodies. Firefighters are exposed to flame retardants when they go into burning buildings.

Why should I be concerned?
Flame retardants are linked to cancer, nervous system damage, decreased fertility, and other health problems. Because children are still developing, they are much more vulnerable to the health risks associated with flame retardants. Their tendency to touch their faces and mouths add to the danger and put them at even greater risk.

Some flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been largely phased out due to consumer pressure and the passage of laws banning them in some states, and another group of chemicals, known as chlorinated tris, has also been banned in some states.  However, as some flame retardants are banned or phased out, product manufacturers often replace them with other toxic chemicals.

What can government and business do?

  • Product manufacturers should immediately end the use of flame retardants in all applications where fire safety can be achieved using non-toxic fire retardant materials and construction. Manufacturers should also continue to seek ways of making additional products fire safe without the use of flame retardants.
  • Retailers should sell only flame retardant free furniture and other foam products.
  • Federal and state governments should pass legislation to phase out the use of flame retardants as well as require companies to replace the chemicals with safer alternatives.

What is being done in MA?

Boston City Councilors passed a bill on March 23, 2016 to amend the city’s Fire Prevention Code, allowing hospitals, schools, colleges, and other public buildings with sprinkler systems to use furniture free of toxic flame retardant chemicals.This bill protects people from needless exposure to harmful flame retardants, creating a safer and healthier environment for all those who live, work, serve, and learn in Boston.

Two bills that would protect our children, families, and firefighters from harmful flame retardants moved one step closer to becoming Massachusetts laws this 2016.There are currently two bills to help ban the use of flame retardants: An Act to protect children and families from harmful flame retardants (SD.539) and similarly (HD.1258)

How can I reduce my exposure?

  • Frequently vacuum your home with a HEPA filter;
  • When buying furniture and other foam products, look at labels and ask questions.  Ask the manufacturer and/or retailer whether or not the products contain flame retardants and ask for “flame retardant-free” products.

Additional Resources

Lowell Center for Sustainable Production: PBDE Fact Sheet
Washington Toxics Coalition: PBDEs – Toxic Flame Retardants