Flame Retardant Chemicals

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?

The Massachusetts Legislature banned 11 of the most toxic flame retardants from being used in upholstered furniture, mattresses, children’s products, window treatments, and carpets.  This law is effective as of December 31, 2021.

The City of Boston passed a law allowing flame-retardant-free furnishings in sprinklered buildings.

How can I reduce my exposure?

  • If you bought upholstered furniture or mattresses between 1975 and 2015, it almost certainly has flame retardant chemicals.  After 2015, it became possible to buy furniture without flame retardants and an increasing number of states have banned, like California and Maryland, have banned many classes of classes of flame retardant chemicals.
  • When buying furniture and other foam products, look at labels and ask questions.  The label should say TB117 2015 AND flame retardant free.  Ask the manufacturer and/or retailer whether or not the products contain flame retardants and ask for “flame retardant-free” products.  
  • You can replace the foam in your existing furniture with flame retardant free foam.

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Additional Resources

Lowell Center for Sustainable Production: PBDE Fact Sheet
Toxic Free Future: Flame Retardants

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617-338-8131

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Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow

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Boston, MA 02110

p: 617-338-8131

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