You may have heard warnings about exposure to flame retardant chemicals in everyday products, and a recent article put out by environmentalhealthnews.org links flame retardant exposure with lower IQ, poorer attention and motor skills in children. This is yet another reminder why everyone, especially women of childbearing age, pregnant women and young children should avoid exposure to PBDEs and other toxic flame retardants.
What began as an attempt to save lives from fires in homes has now been linked to neurodevelopment effects in children; including higher probabilities of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as lower reasoning, verbal, and IQ test scores.
Flame retardants were added to home furnishings in response to pressure on tobacco companies to address the issue of fire safety related to cigarette smoking. Instead of creating cigarettes that would self-extinguish, couches and other household items were doused in toxic flame retardants. Without government regulation that would require proof that exposure to flame retardants is safe, chemical companies have been able to profit while flame retardants have done far more harm than good. Fire safety experts and government studies conclude that flame retardants are ultimately ineffective. Furthermore, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune shows that these flame retardants are harmful and unnecessary!
Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDEs) is the second largest class of additives in the plastic industry used in home furnishings and in computers and other electronics.
PBDEs are considered Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), meaning they leach out into the air and dust, and are ingested by animals. Humans consume PBDEs through inhalation of dust and consumption of animal fats. PBDEs levels in dust exceed levels in food by up to a thousand times, making dust a primary route of exposure.
PBDEs are stored in our fatty tissue, where they remain for years. This makes them highly concentrated in breast milk, which poses an increased threat to nursing infants. Infants who are not breast-fed are still exposed to PBDEs in the womb from maternal blood.Children have higher levels of PBDE concentrations than adults because they tend to play on the ground where dust accumulates. Dust also gets onto their hands, which they often place in their mouths, increasing exposure.
Californians are even more susceptible to PBDEs exposure compared to the rest of the United States, and have levels seven to ten times higher than other states. The cities with some of the highest known levels of PBDEs were found to be Oakland and Salinas, areas where predominately low-income communities of color reside.
Although some flame retardants have been phased out, others remain in older furniture. This poses a higher threat to low-income families who do not have the financial means to purchase new home furnishings. Californians are likely to have the highest exposure because of the outdated flammability standard known as TB-117 (take a look at the tag under your couch- it’s likely that your couch complies with this standard).
While this all sounds overwhelming, you can take action! We need to let our elected officials know that we want to get toxic flame retardants out of our homes and our bodies. California Governor Jerry Brown’s administration is proposing new rules that would change California’s flammability standard. The changes would exempt many baby products including car seats, changing pads and infant mattresses from the flammability standard. There is a 45-day public comment period in which chemical companies will try to dispute the proposed changes. It is urgent that we show our support now!
Exposure to PBDEs is unavoidable, but there are things you can do to limit your exposure:
• Wash your hands frequently to reduce exposure from dust.
• Use a vacuum fitted with a high-efficiency particulate air(HEPA) filter, which can be found in most home improvement stores, and wet mop to reduce dust.
• Avoid products filled with polyurethane foam and instead purchase products with wool, organic cotton, or polyester fiberfill.
• Cover and seal rips in upholstery that may reveal polyurethane foam
• Reduce your consumption of animal fat, because PBDEs bio accumulate in fatty tissues
• Check the “Do Not Remove” label on your mattress to see if it contains PBDEs. If you cannot afford to buy a new, natural fiber mattress, you can purchase an allergen barrier casing for your mattress to reduce leaching.