Are Flame Retardants Putting Your Health at Risk?

  • Consumer products like couches are often treated with flame retardants. Photo: emdot via Flickr

June 26, 2015

When you buy a new couch, a baby changing pad or even a tent, you might be getting more than you bargained for. Many consumer products like these are treated with flame retardants that can get into your body and cause health problems. But what are the risks? This week, Kara Holsopple spoke with Heather Stapleton who studies flame retardants and their impact on human health at Duke University. Here are some highlights from the interview.

On how flame retardants became common in consumer products:
"The most attention, particularly over the last decade, has focused on residential furniture. And flame retardants are present in residential furniture really because of a state law in California that was implemented in the 1970s. There was increased concern about people falling asleep with a cigarette and the cigarette starting a sofa or mattress on fire. One of the proposals to deal with this situation was to make the furniture more resistant to flame, and the easiest and most cost-effective way to meet that standard has been to add chemicals to the filling material, which is typically polyurethane foam. And while that originally was more specific to California, today most manufacturers don't want to make two different product lines. So it has, in fact, become a de facto standard for the entire United States."

On how flame retardants get into our bodies:
"Foam is very porous; it has lots of air pockets. And so as we sit down or jump on the couch, that air is expelled and it transports the flame retardants with it. These chemicals are kind of sticky—they don’t like to be in the air necessarily—so they attach to particles very quickly and thus they accumulate in indoor dust. And that’s particularly a concern for children—particularly if they’re crawling around on the floor—or young toddlers, who put their hands in their mouths quite often."

On the health risks associated with flame retardants:
"It’s very difficult to prove a health effect in the human population, but three different independent studies conducted in the U.S. by different universities have found that if moms have higher levels of these flame retardants in their bloodstream during pregnancy, or if young children have higher levels when they’re between the ages of one and three—and then those children are examined for things like IQ, cognitive function later in life—they’re more likely to score lower if they had higher levels younger in life."

How you can reduce your exposure to flame retardants:
"Really, the best thing people can do is simply to wash their hands. It’s good for reducing transfer of the common cold and also good for reducing your exposure to flame retardants."