Flame Retardants: Benefits and Risks

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You may have heard or read about flame retardants in the news.  Some are concerned that exposure to flame retardants may cause unwanted health effects, with children being at greater risk.  On the other hand, proponents believe the chemicals are very effective at preventing fires and fire-related injuries and deaths.  Read below to find out how you can minimize a child’s health risk.

What are flame retardants and where are they found?

Flame retardants1 are chemicals added to many consumer products to inhibit or suppress their flammability.  Flame retardants work in one of three different ways to help prevent or minimize the severity of fire in the home.  They may:

  1. make it more difficult for a material to combust,
  2. create a fire resistant layer on the surface of the product,
  3. or reduce the presence of flammable gases and oxygen near a burning product2.

In addition, some flame retardants are materials that increase the fire protective qualities of other flame retardants3.  Flame retardants are found in a variety of household products, such as electronic devices and wires, kitchen appliances, vehicles, upholstered furniture, carpets, draperies, and mattresses3, 4.  Additionally, many products used primarily by infants and children may contain flame retardant chemicals.

Incorporation of flame retardants into consumer products began in 1975 under California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) with the intent of saving property and limiting loss of life and human injury in the event of a fire3, 5.  Implementation of the law reduced the number of upholstered furniture fires by 67% by 1991.  In a 2011 analysis of U.S. home fires since the implementation of flame retardants in 1975, the number of fires dropped approximately 95%, the number of fire injuries decreased 35%, and the number of fire-related deaths dropped 57%. 

In a 2011 analysis of U.S. home fires since the implementation of flame retardants in 1975, the number of fires dropped approximately 95%, the number of fire injuries decreased 35%, and the number of fire-related deaths dropped 57%.

While the number of injuries and deaths has decreased since the implementation of flame retardants, there are many contributing factors. For example, the use of in home smoke alarms has increased from 22% of homes in 1977 to 96% of homes in 20108. Thus, it remains unclear if the decrease in injuries and deaths attributable to fires is the result of the incorporation of flame retardants into consumer products, the increased use of smoke alarms or, most likely, some combination these factors and others.  Furthermore, some researchers have questioned the necessity of adding flame retardant chemicals to furniture foam because studies have demonstrated flame retardant foam may burn at a similar rate as foam manufactured without flame retardants4.  However, other studies have shown flame retardants slow the rate of burning or prevent the sustained combustion of plastics or foams, when used at the required concentration9,10.


Why are we hearing so much about flame retardants in the news?

Several individual flame retardants have been restricted, banned, or voluntarily removed from use after studies in laboratory animals have suggested they may cause adverse health effects, and due to concerns regarding environmental persistence3, 4, 11.  “Flame retardant chemicals” refers to a large and diverse group of chemicals.  Their chemical and physical properties influence how much is absorbed and retained in our bodies.  Adverse effects in laboratory animals that have been associated with long-term, higher level exposure, to some flame retardants include hormone disruption, impaired nervous and immune system function, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and disruption of fetus and child development4.

Studies in humans confirm the presence of certain flame retardants in blood, breast milk and fatty tissues, with the blood levels being higher in infants and children than in adults8. Two polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs, a specific class of flame retardants), specifically pentaBDPE and octaBDPE, have been associated with thyroid toxicity at exposures that are similar to estimates of daily exposure in some children.  Thus, exposure may be high enough to cause health concerns12,13.

Based on these findings, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has banned these two flame retardants in consumer products14.  Currently, only one PBDE (decaBDPE) is in use and many manufacturers are phasing it out of production, importation and most uses in consumer products by the end of 201314.

Some alternative technologies to reduce exposure include:

  1. The use flame retardant chemicals as one part of a compound that is used to treat fabric which then prevents release of the chemicals into the environment,
  2. The use of larger chemical compounds that are not as easily absorbed by the body,
  3. The development of safer alternatives with extremely low toxicities15,16.

Identifying safer alternatives is a current industry challenge and the use of alternatives needs further research on the potential health and environmental effects of the proposed alternatives before they are used commercially.

How can I minimize my family’s exposure to flame retardants?

Although it is difficult to completely avoid flame retardants, it is possible to minimize your children’s exposure in your own home.  Flame retardants used in draperies, upholstered furniture, and carpets escape as dust particles into the air settling on surfaces in the home3, 5.  Since inhalation is the main route of exposure, keeping household dust at a minimum by cleaning often using a vacuum with a HEPA filter or a wet mop is recommended4.  Young children in close proximity with the floor may have a higher exposure to dust containing flame retardant chemicals. 

Until further information on toxicity from exposures to specific flame retardant chemicals is available, parents will need to make the decision on how best to protect their children by balancing the known risk of injury or death due to fire with the potential risk of adverse health effects from exposure to these chemicals.

Prevent young children from mouthing items that contain flame retardants, such as cell phones and remote controls, and make hand washing before eating a priority5.

Furniture or baby products made with polyester, down, wool, cotton, or wood (without foam filling) are less likely to contain flame retardant chemicals than other products5.  Sleepwear intended for children aged one to six years may also be treated with flame retardants.  However, snug fitting children’s sleepwear marked with a tag that says “must be sung fitting” or “not flame resistant” is not required to be treated with flame retardants5.  Baby products, such as strollers, nursing pillows, and high chairs as well as upholstered furniture and draperies may include a tag stating compliance with TB117 and are likely to contain flame retardants5.  Checking for this tag before purchasing products is one way to help control your family’s exposure to flame retardants, but it is important to remember the purpose of flame retardants is safety from unintended fires7.

Until further information on toxicity from exposures to specific flame retardant chemicals is available, parents will need to make the decision on how best to protect their children by balancing the known risk of injury or death due to fire with the potential risk of adverse health effects from exposure to these chemicals.

 

Author

NSF International Toxicology Services

Further information:

United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA): http://www.epa.gov/oppt/existingchemicals/pubs/actionplans/pbde.html

http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=210404

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR): http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/PHS/PHS.asp?id=1118&tid=239

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA): http://www.nfpa.org/itemDetail.asp?categoryID=953&itemID=23071&URL=Research%20&%20Reports/Fire%20statistics/The%20U.S.%20fire%20problem&cookie_test=1&cookie%5Ftest=1

US Centers for Disease Control  (CDC): http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Fire-Prevention/fires-factsheet.html

Green Science Policy Institute: http://www.greensciencepolicy.org/information-consumers

 

References and Notes:

(1)    These materials can be separated into different chemical classes such as mineral compounds, organophosphorus compounds (degradable organic compounds containing carbon–phosphorus bonds, organohalogen compounds (any of a class of organic compounds that contain at least one halogen (fluorine [F], chlorine [Cl], bromine [Br], or iodine [I]) bonded to carbon), or a combination of these3.

(2)    Flame retardants interrupt the fire tetrahedron by disrupting fuel or oxygen supplies or by removing heat or disrupting the chemical reaction that is fire.  Fire retardants can cause polymer cross-linking leading to char formation that prevents pyrolysis and acts as a barrier to both heat and oxygen. Flame retardants can also generate gaseous breakdown products that are not flammable that displace oxygen (CO2), remove heat (CO2, HX, or MO), or disrupt the radical flame reaction (HX).

(3)    Innes, A., & Innes, J. (2011). 27 – Flame retardants. Applied Plastics Engineering Handbook, William Andrew Publishing, Oxford, pg. 469-485. doi: 10.1016/B978-1-4377-3514-7.10027-3.

(4)    Shaw SD, Blum A, Weber R, Kannan K, Rich D, Lucas D, Koshland CP, Dobraca D, Hanson S, Birnbaum LS. (2010) Halogenated flame retardants: do the fire safety benefits justify the risks? Rev Environ Health. Oct-Dec: 25(4): 261-305

(5)    Green Science Policy. (2010). How to reduce toxics in your home. Retrieved from http://www.greensciencepolicy.org/information-consumers

(6)    Damant, G.H., & Nurbakhsh, S. (1995). Development of furnishings flammability standards for public buildings and private residences. Journal of Fire Sciences. 13 (6): 417-433. doi: 10.1177/073490419501300601.

(7)    National Fire Protection Association. The U.S. fire problem.  National Fire Protection Association, Quincy MA. September 2010.

(8)    Ahrens, M. (2011). Smoke alarms in U.S. home fires. The National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA. Retrieved from http://www.nfpa.org/itemDetail.asp?categoryID=953&itemID=23071&URL=Research%20&%20Reports/Fire%20statistics/The%20U.S.%20fire%20problem&cookie_test=1&cookie%5Ftest=1

(9)    Wilkie, C.A., Morgan A. B.  Fire Retardancy of Polymeric Materials, CRC Press, 2nd edition, 2010.

(10)Weil E.D., Levchik S.V.  Flame Retardants for Plastics and Textiles, Hanser Publications 2009.

(11) Kefeni, K.K., Okonkow, J.O., Olukunle, O.I., Botha, B.M. (2011). Brominated flame retardants: sources, distribution, exposure pathways, and toxicity. Environmental Reviews. 19: 238-253.

(12) ENVIRON International Corporation. Tier 1 assessment of the potential health risks to children associated with exposure to the commercial octabromodiphenyl ether product CAS no. 32536-52-0. ENVIRON International Corporation, Emeryville, CA. April 21, 2003.

(13) ENVIRON International Corporation. Tier 1 assessment of the potential health risks to children associated with exposure to the commercial pentabromodiphenyl ether product CAS no 32534-81-9. ENVIRON International Corporation, Emeryville, CA. April 21,  2003

(14) U. S. EPA. An exposure assessment of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) (final). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington DC, EPA/600/R-08/086F, 2010.

(15) Horrocks A R, Price D Advances in Fire Retardant Materials, Woodhead Publishing Ltd, 2008.

(16) Alternative technologies employ the incorporation of the flame retardants as monomer into the polymer backbone to prevent release into the environment, use of very large molecules that are not bio-available or the development of green compounds with extremely low toxicities.

 

One Response to Flame Retardants: Benefits and Risks

  1. OK says:

    The recent Asiana Airline crash in San Francisco was a tragedy, but appears to have been mollified in part by flame retardant materials that increased the escape time for passengers before flames engulfed the plane.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/us/san-francisco-plane-crash.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

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