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Health & Flame Retardants

The health effects of being exposed to flame retardants in furniture

The scientific community has identified many flame retardant chemicals as substances of concern for several adverse effects, such us persistence, bioaccumulation, toxicity, mutagenicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenicity.  In furniture items flame retardants are added to foam and textiles. Long-term exposure occurring in homes and offices is potentially harmful. Exposure is not limited to direct contact with furniture as the chemicals are not bound to the foam and can also come off the fabric they are coated to. Flame retardants are released through normal use and settle into dust. Toddlers are at a higher potential risk as they crawl around, getting dust on their hands and in their mouths. Workers are exposed when manufacturing or handling products that contain flame retardant chemicals. Fire-fighters suffer from exposure to toxic fumes released from the combustion of materials containing flame retardants.

The “San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame Retardants” addresses the growing concern in the scientific community about the persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic properties of brominated and chlorinated organic flame retardants. The consensus statement has over 200 signatories from 30 countries, representing expertise on health, environment and fire safety. The statement was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, December 2010.

"Many brominated and chlorinated flame retardants appear to be  persistent and bioaccumulative, resulting in food chain contamination,  including human milk. [...] When brominated and chlorinated flame retardants burn, highly toxic dioxins and furans are formed".

"The leakage of flame retartands from consumer products leads to exposure of humans from fetal life to adulthood. Food, particularly fish productscontain the highest levels of BFRs and dominate the dietary intake of frequent fish eaters in Europe, while meat and dairy products accounted for the highest US dietary intake". 

"Increasingly, scientists and consumer advocates have been saying that these chemicals are more dangerous than helpful — causing diseases and neurological problems, particularly in children. Some types of flame retardants already have been banned, but others are still in widespread use".

Flame retardants found in honey sample

"Concentrations of 17 brominated flame retardants (BFRs), including two “novel” BFRs […] have been determined to be in 35 commercial honey samples from Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia and Morocco. […] The detection of BFRs in honeys from different countries highlights the risk that their presence poses to the health of humans and wildlife since honey is a non-fatty natural product that is highly consumed all over the world".

Levels of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in honey samples from different geographic regions - 2014

Flame retardants via breastfeeding

"Four alternative halogenated flame retardants (AFRs) and another Penta-BDE replacement were detected in> 42% of all human milk samples. Because of the potential developmental neurotoxicity of the halogenated flame retardants, infant dietary intakes via breastfeeding were estimated; in four cases the intakes of BDE 47 exceeded the reference dose indicating that the present concentrations may pose a risk for children".

Legacy and alternative halogenated flame retardants in human milk in Europe: Implications for children's health - 2013 

PFRs detected in human urine samples

"Organophosphate flame retardants(PFRs)are a class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) with ubiquitous exposure that have been detected in 90–100% of adult urine samples. Over the past decade, PFRs have been used widely in the polyurethane foam of upholstered furniture as replacements for pentabromodi-phenylether [...]. These chemicals are not chemically bonded to foam and have been shown to migrate into the air and dust of indoor environments".

Urinary Concentrations of Organophosphate Flame Retardant Metabolites and Pregnancy Outcomes among Women Undergoing in Vitro Fertilization - 2017


"Flame Retardants can be emitted from the treated products, contaminating indoor and outdoor environment. Organophosphate flame retardants (PFRs) have been reported in air, dust, water, sediment, and soil. In the indoor environment, the PFR contamination levels are comparable to, or even higher than PBDEs. Recently, low levels of PFRs have also been found in food and biota samples, which raise serious concerns of PFR pollution in environment. Some PFRs [...] are suspected to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, or neurotoxic [...]. Moreover, PFR levels in house dust were associated with the altered hormone levels and decrease of semen quality. Recently, PFRs have been found in breast milk, implying a potential health threat to newborns. Also, significant correlations have been reported between air/dust samples and human hair. PFRs are less persistent, more easily metabolized and further excreted via urine. Some PFR metabolites in urine were associated with their parent compounds in indoor dust or hand wipes, indicating a common exposure of the general public to PFRs".

Comprehensive Study of Human External Exposure to Organophosphate Flame Retardants via Air, Dust, and Hand Wipes: The Importance of Sampling and Assessment Strategy - 2016

ARTE documentary on the health risks posed by flame retardants

Is exposure to flame retardants and other toxics reducing the intelligence of our population?

On 11 November 2017 " Brains in Danger: How chemicals are poisoning future generations “ [Original title: Demain, Tous Cretins?] premiered in France. The French documentary includes the story of flame retardants and the work carried out by Arlene Blum and the Green Science Policy Institute on flame retardants. It shares the message that we need to reduce the use of toxic chemicals to protect our brains and those of future generations.

Since the 1970s, an increasing number of regulations have expanded the use of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants. Many of these chemicals are now recognized as global contaminants and are associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans, including endocrine and thyroid disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function. Some flame retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been banned or voluntarily phased out by manufacturers because of their environmental persistence and toxicity, only to be replaced by other flame retardants of unknown toxicity.

"The levels of flame retardants found in the general North American populations are higher than those in Europe and Japan. However, if authorities would choose certain flammability tests of products, then consumers and the general population will be increasingly exposed to these hazardous chemicals".

"Trace amounts of flame retardants, banned in the US for more than a decade, are still being passed through umbilical cord blood from mothers to their babies.
What is especially concerning is that consistently higher levels of PBDEs were found in the infant of each mother-infant pair, suggesting that babies have higher circulating concentrations of these potentially neurotoxic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals compared with their mothers".

"While PBDEs are endocrine disruptors and neurotoxicants, the safety to humans and the environment of the FR chemicals alternatively used, such as new brominated flame retardants (NBFRs) and organophosphorus flame retardants (OPFRs), still needs to be elucidated.

Some NBFRs are structurally similar to PBDEs indicating a potential for bioaccumulation and toxicity. OPFRs may pose a risk to humans".