Environment & Flame Retardants

The effects of flame retardants in the environment

Flame retardants migrate out of products and accumulate in the environment. Many flame retardants are persistent and can undergo long-range environmental transport. Flame retardants enter the environment through multiple pathways, such as emission during manufacturing, from products in use, and combustion, leaching from landfills, or recycling at the end of the product‘s life. Since their introduction, FRs have become widespread global contaminants and have been detected throughout the world in air, water, soil, sediment, sludge, dust, bivalves, crustaceans, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and humans.

Flame retardants migrate to arctic sediment

“Organophosphate ester (OPEs) flame retardants travel long distances and researchers have measured them in Arctic Ocean sediments. As concerns grew over PBDEs, manufacturers turned to OPEs as alternative flame retardants, but scientists are concerned that these replacements may also meet the Stockholm Convention’scriteria for POPs. Not much is known about the human health effects of OPEs, yet some governments have listed them as cancer-causing agents, and in vitro and animal data suggest that the compounds may be endocrine disrupters—so they may meet the criterion of toxicity. They do not appear to increase in concentration as they move up the food chain, although like the brominated retardants they are replacing, OPEs readily escape into the environment and have been found in fish and in human breast milk, research shows”.

Many organizations, including the U.S. EPA and the United Nations, have expressed concerns about consumers’ continued exposure to these hazardous flame retardants through reincorporation of recycled materials into new products. “Millions of pounds of foam that is flame retarded with pentaBDE or an alternative have been, and will be, sold and used in homes throughout the United States as carpet cushions.

Direct exposure to millions of consumers from these sources is possible,” warned the EPA in 2005. EPA explained, “as carpet padding ages, foam dust will be generated and become airborne with traffic on carpet. This presents a particular exposure potential for children, who spend time on the floor.” Additionally, the flame retardants volatilize and are deposited onto household dust, which creates further potential exposure.

2016 study indicates that inhalation is also a significant exposure route for several of the replacement 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.


The Alliance for Flame Retardant Free Furniture in Europe consists of stakeholders ranging from environmental and health NGOs to industry, cancer organisations, fire fighters and labour unions.

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