What are flame retardants?
Flame retardants are chemicals that are applied to materials to prevent the start or slow the growth of fire. They have been used in many consumer and industrial products since the 1970s, to decrease the ability of materials to ignite.
Flame retardants are often added or applied to the following products.
- Furnishings, such as foam, upholstery, mattresses, carpets, curtains, and fabric blinds.
- Electronics and electrical devices, such as computers, laptops, phones, televisions, and household appliances, plus wires and cables.
- Building and construction materials, including electrical wires and cables, and insulation materials, such as polystyrene and polyurethane insulation foams.
- Transportation products, such as seats, seat covers and fillings, bumpers, overhead compartments, and other parts of automobiles, airplanes, and trains.
Many flame retardants have been removed from the market or are no longer produced. However, because they do not easily break down, they can remain persistent in the environment for years. They can also bioaccumulate, or build up in people and animals over time.
How are people exposed to flame retardants?
What can be done to reduce exposure to flame retardants?
- Keep dust levels down, by wet mopping and vacuuming with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to help remove contaminants from your home.
- Wash your hands and those of your children often. Hand-to-mouth contact exposes people to flame retardants.
- When purchasing new products, try to purchase baby products and furniture filled with cotton, polyester, or wool, instead of polyurethane foam.
- Reduce dust by having a good ventilation system in your home.
People can be exposed to flame retardants through a variety of ways, including diet; consumer products in the home, car, airplane, and workplace; and house dust.1
- These chemicals can get into the air, water, and soil during manufacture.
- Chemicals can leak from products into dust and into the air.
- Dust can get on hands and food and then into the mouth when food is eaten.
- Through e-waste or the uncontrolled burning and dismantling of electronic and electric waste.
What are some of the potential health effects associated with flame retardants?
Although flame retardants can offer benefits when they are added to some products, a growing body of evidence shows that many of these chemicals are associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans. These include:
- Endocrine and thyroid disruption
- Impacts to the immune system
- Reproductive toxicity
- Adverse effects on fetal and child development
- Neurologic function
Who is most vulnerable?
Children may be particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of these chemicals, because their brain and other organs are still developing. Hand-to-mouth behavior and proximity to the floor increases the potential of children to be exposed to flame retardants. Researchers have found that children have higher concentrations of flame retardants in their bodies than adults.
Are there different types of flame retardants?
There are hundreds of different flame retardants. They are often broken into categories based on chemical structure and properties. In general, flame retardants are grouped based on whether they contain bromine, chlorine, phosphorus, nitrogen, metals, or boron.
Brominated flame retardants — Contain bromine and are the most abundantly used flame retardants. Used in many consumer goods, including electronics, furniture, building materials, etc. and have been linked to endocrine disruption among other effects.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s) —PBDEs do not chemically bind with the products to which they are added (furniture, electronics, etc.) so they easily release from these products and enter air and dust. PBDEs can lower birth weight/length of children, and impair neurological development.
Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) — Widely used to make computer circuit boards and electronics. Also used in some textiles and paper, or as an additive in other flame retardants.
Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) — An additive primarily used in polystyrene foam building materials. The primary risk to humans is from leaching out of products and getting into indoor dust. Low levels of HBCD have also been found in some food products.
Organophosphate flame retardants (OPFRs) — With the phasing out of PBDEs, some OPFRs have been identified as replacements.
NIEHS-supported researchers are also looking at the health effects of newer flame retardant alternatives that are being brought to market.
Why are NIEHS and NTP studying these chemicals?
Flame retardants are being studied because of their abundance in the environment and concerns about their impact on human health, especially to children who can be easily exposed to them through hand-to-mouth contact.
The National Toxicology Program (NTP), an interagency testing program headquartered at NIEHS, has received many nominations to study flame retardants, because of the lack of information about their toxicity.
One way in which NIEHS seeks to advance research in this field is to better understand how people dispose of products that contain flame retardants. For example, at sites where discarded consumer products containing flame retardants are dismantled, recycled, or burned, there is potential for release of these products into the air, soil, and water. These chemicals can then be absorbed by surrounding vegetation, animals, or people.
NIEHS is also interested in conducting research and sharing new findings that will help companies develop safer alternatives to current flame retardants.
Stories from the Environmental Factor (NIEHS Newsletter)
- The Environment Influences Brain Development, Experts Say (March 2020)
- NTP Panel Agrees Flame Retardant Mixture Exhibits Carcinogenic Activity (August 2015)
- tox21 Tools Promoted at UC Davis Meeting (July 2015)
- Birnbaum Weighs in on Flame Retardants in Retroreport (June 2015)
- Consumer Fact Sheet on Flame Retardants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- Flame Retardants – Technical reports from the Consumer Product Safety Commission
- NIH News in Health: Making a Healthier Home: Cast Toxins from Your Living Space (69KB) Becoming aware of potentially harmful substances and clearing them out can help keep you and your family healthy.
- Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) – A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) fact sheet
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