Gathering Dust: Many Toxic Flame Retardants Linger in Homes, Sometimes at Levels Above Health Guidelines

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Flame retardants sound like a good idea to prevent our couches and computers and carpets from combusting. Yet these chemicals also accumulate and linger in our homes, sometimes winding up in household dust at levels of health concern. That was one of the central findings of a recent Silent Spring Institute study, the first to test for a wide range of flame retardants in homes.

Institute researchers tested for 49 flame retardant chemicals in household dust, the main route of exposure for people and especially for children. Forty-four chemicals were detected. Most homes had at least one chemical above a federal health guideline. The flame retardants found in house dust include carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and chemicals with unknown safety profiles.

The highest dust concentrations were found for chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants. This chemical group includes TCEP and TDCIPP (or chlorinated “Tris”), which are listed as carcinogens under California’s Proposition 65.

In a previous study, conducted in 2006, Silent Spring Institute researchers discovered that Californians had significantly higher levels of PBDEs, a common class of flame retardants, in their homes and bodies than the rest of the nation, likely the result of a unique statewide furniture flammability standard. That same year, California banned two commercial PBDE flame retardant mixtures, PentaBDE and OctaBDE.

When the researchers resampled the same homes in 2011 for the more recent study, they found increased levels of Firemaster® 550, a replacement for PentaBDE. PentaBDE levels fell significantly in homes that added new furniture, electronics, and flooring, indicating exposure shifted when products were replaced after the chemical was phased out.

“When one toxic flame retardant is phased out, it’s being replaced by another chemical we either know is dangerous or suspect may be,” Brody added. “It’s not comforting to swap one hazardous chemical for its evil cousin. Instead, we should test chemicals before they are allowed on the market.”

Try This at Home
Here are some steps you can take to reduce your exposure:

  • Go natural. Select carpets, carpet pads, bedding, cushions, and upholstered furniture made from naturally flame-resistant materials such as wool, polyester, and hemp.
  • Repair ripped furniture. Flame retardants are added to polyurethane foam filling, so mend any rips your couch or chair upholstery may have.
  • Keep down dust. Vacuum regularly with a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter. Wipe surfaces with a wet cloth or mop.
  • Wash hands frequently. Hand washing does more than prevent the spread of germs; it also reduces the amount of flame retardants entering our bodies. Remember to use regular soap and water instead of antibacterial soaps, which may contain endocrine disrupting chemicals.
  • Buy snug pajamas for children. Sleepwear for children nine months and older is subject to flammability tests. Look for snug-fitting cotton sleepwear that is labeled as not flame resistant.
  • Get involved. At the national level, Congress is considering the Safe Chemicals Act to make sure chemicals are tested for safety before going into use. To learn more, visit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. You can help change California’s furniture flammability standard. For more information, visit Green Science Policy Institute. Learn more about keeping your home healthy at www.silentspring.org/take-action.

Resources

Article in Environmental Science & Technology: After the PBDE Phase-out: A Broad Suite of Flame Retardants in Repeat House Dust Samples from California

Press Release: Many Toxic Flame Retardants Found in Household Dust, Some at Levels Above Health Guidelines

Fact Sheet: House Dust Contains Carcinogens and Untested Chemicals Used as Flame Retardants in Consumer Products (spanish)

Tip Sheet: 5 Tips to Reduce Toxic Flame Retardants at Home (spanish)

Charts: Main findings

Table: More information about chemicals in the study

The study, which appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the New York Community Trust, the Fine Fund, and Art beCAUSE Breast Cancer Foundation.