Let’s get one thing straight: since their introduction in the 1970’s, flame retardants used in consumer products have directly saved countless lives. For that success there is, unfortunately, a price being paid:
Synthetic chemicals added to consumer products to meet federal and state flammability standards are showing up in waterways, wildlife and even human breast milk.
Studies in laboratory animals and humans have linked the most scrutinized flame retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, to thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, advanced puberty and reduced fertility. Other flame retardants have been linked to cancer. At the same time, recent studies suggest that the chemicals may not effectively reduce the flammability of treated products.
The first reports suggesting that these chemicals posed a risk to human health came out in 1977. Soon after, the government began banning their use in children’s pajamas and other sleepwear. However, they continue to be used in many other consumer products and textiles such as foam cushions in sofas and infant/child car seats, carpets and drapes, electronics, and more. Liza Gross explains where these chemicals end up next:
These compounds are building up in human fat, seminal fluid and breast milk. During the past 30 years, Hites reported in 2004, PBDE levels in human blood, milk and tissue increased by a factor of 100 — essentially doubling every five years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measured PBDE levels in people by analyzing blood samples collected in 2003 and 2004 for its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The study found that 97 percent of Americans had flame retardants in their blood, and those ages 12 to 19 had the highest levels. It’s unclear what a safe level of exposure might be, if it exists. The CDC noted in 2008, when the report was released, that no human health effects had been directly attributed to exposure to PBDEs. But researchers say newer studies are concerning.
Gross alerts us that more studies on the safety of flame retardants by the EPA are forthcoming. In the meantime, it’s not a bad idea for all of us to consider the health effects of the complex chemicals man has introduced — through the air, water, and soil — into our bodies.