Are Flame Retardants Putting Us at Risk?

Flame retardant chemicals are used in hundreds of products in our homes and offices and schools. The chemicals can slow the spread of fire. But certain kinds of these chemicals leach out of our couches, our TVs, our carpet padding and many other things in our homes. And they're getting into our bodies. Rebecca Williams tries to find out what's in the products in her own home.

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lame retardant chemicals are used in hundreds of products in our homes and offices and schools. The chemicals can slow the spread of fire. But certain kinds of these chemicals leach out of our couches, our TVs, our carpet padding and many other things in our homes. And they're getting into our bodies. Rebecca Williams tries to find out what's in the products in her own home:

A few months ago, I never really thought about flame retardants. I knew some of these chemicals were probably in my house, but I kinda just shrugged it off. But then I had a baby. And that made me want to take another look.

The chemicals I'm talking about are called PBDEs. That's polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Some of these PBDEs have been phased out. But there's a good chance your couch and chairs and carpet padding still have these chemicals in them. You're probably surrounded by PBDEs and you will be for a long time.

That worries some scientists and doctors. That's because hundreds of peer-reviewed studies in animals are suggesting exposure to PBDEs might be linked to problems with brain development, changes to thyroid systems, and fertility problems. And recently, human studies are coming out and they're showing some of the same things. Public health experts are especially worried about babies and young kids because they grow so fast...and they are constantly exposed to dust. That's where PBDEs tend to collect.

The American Chemistry Council did not want to be recorded for this story. But in an email response to my questions, a spokesperson said: quote: Flame retardants have been rigorously tested and have saved lives. Two of the big chemical companies also responded to me by email. Chemtura and ICL Industrial Products both say they stand by the safety of their flame retardant chemicals. But many independent scientists and public health experts say it's a good idea to reduce your exposure to PBDEs.

So all of this made me wonder. How can we know what's in the stuff we buy? It seems like a simple question. But there are no labels at the store. You can write to the companies that make your furniture and TV. But I wrote to a half dozen companies to ask them about flame retardants... and only heard back from one, Fisher-Price.

But I have a lot of stuff that's not made by Fisher-Price. So... I thought I'd call in some experts. The guys at the Ecology Center test consumer products for chemicals. Jeff Gearhart volunteered to come up and test my home to see if we could find flame retardants.

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He brought along a device that looks like a little gun. It can tell you the chemical makeup of products.

"We're going to look at baby products, toys, furniture, some of your flooring...these chemicals can be transported into your carpet, your child crawls on the carpet, they put their hand in their mouth or there's just dust in the overall environment. So that's the mechanism of how we get exposed to these chemicals."

As Jeff went around my house...he found flame retardants in my TV, the padding under the carpet, three chairs, a car seat, a baby play mat, and our cable box. When PBDEs were phased out of furniture, a lot of companies replaced them with other chemicals.

I wanted to find out more about those chemicals. So I cut samples of foam from some things from my house...and sent them to Heather Stapleton. She's a chemist at Duke University. The sample I sent her from my baby's changing table pad totally stumped her.

"I was a little bit surprised honestly because we've seen most of the major chemical flame retardants in foam products. This one I've never seen before. You mention this was made in China. So it could be the Chinese companies are using something different than what we use in the United States."

She couldn't tell me whether or not it was safe. She says it's next to impossible to know what's in the things you buy. That's because the federal government doesn't require companies to reveal the chemicals in their products or require proof that the chemicals are safe.

For the Environment Report, I'm Rebecca Williams.