Hiding under the covers: Flame retardants and your child’s health

Did you know that toxic chemicals in your couch can enter your breast milk? Or that toddlers and infants playing on the floor are at greatest risk for exposure? Chemicals known to be linked to serious health impacts are introduced into our homes under the guise of making us safe. Until recently, no one has had the authority to do anything about it.

The story of how flame retardants, highly toxic chemicals, were forced into our homes through regulations placed on the furniture industry and how they came to be in baby products, is an interesting one. The heroine and brave crusader at the heart of this story is none other than a concerned mother! It is worth looking up Dr. Arlene Blum in her TED Talk and various articles that document the journey of this inspirational woman. Her research as a chemist exposed the impact of these highly dangerous chemicals to our health and only her tireless efforts and persistence has brought about revolutionary changes in government policy.

Flame retardants include different classes of chemicals. Research on related health impacts focuses mostly on a class called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) such as “penta” which was mostly used in furniture before it was pulled from the market in 2004 because of health concerns. There are also the semi-volatile organic compounds such as the brominated and chlorinated retardants that Blum was successful in getting banned from use in children’s sleepwear. In addition to these chemicals, there are flame retardants in use with health effects that are not yet known or for which we are only in the early stages of investigation. Worse yet, the makeup of some mixtures of chemicals, such as “Firemaster 550,” is unknown and considered a “trade secret” by the manufacturer.

Blum researched the flame retardant “brominated tris” that was added to children’s sleepwear in the 1970s. She showed it could be absorbed through the skin, change DNA and cause cancer. Her findings led to the removal of this chemical from children’s sleepwear in 1977. But, alas, it was quickly replaced with a close cousin, chlorinated tris. Again, Blum showed the chemical to pose the same health concerns as the chemical it had replaced and it, too, was removed from sleepwear. Then she took off to raise her daughter and to the Himalayas where she led the first American and the first all-women’s team to climb Annapurna! It wasn’t until years later when Blum returned to academia that she was shocked to learn that chlorinated tris was still being applied in large quantities to furniture and baby products like strollers, car seats, baby carriers, nursing pillows and mattresses! When the flame retardant Penta was taken off the market in 2004 for its link to health problems, the industry replaced it with chlorinated tris! It was now present in amounts of up to ten percent of the weight of foam or baby products.

In order to comply with a Californian “fire safety” regulation, furniture companies and the makers of baby products added large quantities of fire retardants to their products. The “test” for manufacturers was for the highly flammable foam of their product to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds, the time thought to be the difference in a fire between life and death. Very large quantities of chemicals had to be added to the foam for products to pass this test, and because California is such a large market, the 12-second flame rule quickly became the national standard.

The market was suddenly flooded with highly toxic chemicals that are linked to reduced fertility (a study showed it took women twice as long to get pregnant), decreased birth weight, diabetes, memory loss, undescended testicles, hyperthyroidism, antisocial behavior, hyperactivity, learning disorders, neurological problems, hormone disruption, and cancer. The largest study of children and flame retardants showed that children with higher exposures in the womb or during early childhood were more likely to score lower in tests on coordination and attention and could have a 4-6 point lower IQ by age 4. For a child at the lower end of the IQ spectrum, this could mean the difference between a special-ed class or being able to graduate from high school, the study’s author explains. What’s more is that these chemicals are found everywhere from human breast milk to the tissue of Arctic marine mammals and even taken up through the air into trees in a remote region of Tasmania, Australia!

A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2004 found that 97 percent of Americans had flame retardants in their blood. 12-19 year olds showed the highest levels. In addition, children in California on account of the imposed regulations were found to have double the levels of retardants in their bodies compared with children on the US East Coast. Compared to 30 years prior, these retardants measured in the blood, tissue and breast milk increased by a factor of 100, showing these levels doubled every 5 years.

So, how exactly are we exposed to these chemicals? Because the retardants do not chemically bond to the foam, they escape from products and furniture as a gas and as tiny airborne particles, sticking readily to surfaces and settling in dust. This dust settles on food or sticks to our hands and is ingested. A study directly linked the amount of retardants found on toddlers’ hands with amounts found in their blood. Infants and toddlers are most vulnerable because of their hand-to-mouth behavior and their proximity and contact with the floor. They are also at an age when their reproductive and brain development is occurring and exposure to such toxic chemicals can disrupt this with life-long consequences. These chemicals accumulate in our fat cells and stay with us a very long time.

What is surprising is that the mandatory use of flame retardants still has not shown any improvement in fire safety! It is an entirely unnecessary risk to our health. Baby products are not thought to pose a fire risk. And with regards to upholstered furniture, it is the fabric that first catches alight (not the encased foam) and a resulting blaze would quickly overwhelm the retardants. Flame retardants have in fact been shown to decrease fire safety by increasing the amount of smoke, carbon monoxide and toxic gases when there is a fire, creating more dangerous conditions for people and making fire fighters more vulnerable.

The California regulation established in 1975 (known as Technical Bulletin or TB- 117) was finally revised in 2014 with manufacturers no longer required to add fire retardant chemicals to the foam in products. The new law (TB 117-2013) addresses the fabric (and not the inner foam) and while it doesn’t prohibit manufacturers from using these chemicals, it just sets a new flammability test (a “smolder test”) for which they can use other (non toxic) materials to meet the standard. Certain types of fabric are less flammable than others and a tighter weave fabric further lowers flammability. Depending on materials and design, flame retardants do not need to be added any longer in order to pass the test. In addition, under this new law, various children’s products are now exempt from having to comply with fire safety standards.

So what can you do to reduce exposure to flame retardant chemicals? Check products being brought into the home. Avoid products and furniture with polyurethane foam and those with a label stating “this article meets the flammability requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings Technical Bulletin 117”. Items with this label will most likely contain the toxic flame retardants. The absence of this label, however, doesn’t necessarily mean the product is free of retardants so make inquiries with the seller or manufacturer. Manufacturers will be selling off their inventories with the old TB-117 regulation and, even with an updated label of TB 117-2013, be prepared to ask sellers and manufacturers if the product has been treated with flame retardant chemicals. Opt for products that are made of cotton, polyester or wool. If you cannot afford to replace your couch, refer to Arlene Blum’s website, “The Green Science Policy Institute” for information on where to get your foam cushions replaced. This can reduce the flame retardants in your couch by as much as 80 percent.

Reduce the amount of dust in your home and regularly clean areas where chemical- laden dust settles with a wet mop or wet cloths, and vacuum regularly with a HEPA filter. Wash hands often and regularly. Children’s car seats must comply with different flammability standards and will continue to contain fire retardants. You can seek out brands whose car seats do not contain retardants or you can minimize the time your infant or toddler spends in their seats by perhaps using it for driving time only and not for napping. When choosing children’s sleepwear, look for a tag that says “for child’s safety, garment should fit snugly”, “this garment is not flame resistant,” or similar language. Such labels imply the fabric was probably not treated with flame retardants. With many safe product options available, and equipped with the information in this article, you can significantly reduce the amounts of toxic flame retardants in your home and our environment.

By Ishbel Kerkez