Flame Retardants

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 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 house dust, the main route of exposure for people, especially 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 included 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, published in 2008, Silent Spring Institute researchers discovered that Californians had significantly higher levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (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 had added new furniture, electronics, and flooring, indicating that exposure had 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,” said Julia Brody, PhD, executive director of Silent Spring Institute. “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.”

Home Remedies

You can take many simple steps to reduce your exposure:

  • Go natural. Select carpets, carpet pads, bedding, cushions, and upholstered furniture made from naturally flame-resistant materials such as wool, cotton, 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 not labeled as 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 the Take Action section of Silent Spring Institute’s website.
Flame Retardants ~ Featured Studies


Flame Retardants ~ Gallery of Findings