Flame retardant chemicals are used in commercial and consumer products to meet flammability standards. Not all flame retardants present concerns, but the following types often do:
- Halogenated flame retardants (also known as organohalogen flame retardants) containing chlorine or bromine bonded to carbon.
- Organophosphorous flame retardants containing phosphorous bonded to carbon.
For these types of flame retardants:
- Some are associated with health and environmental concerns
- Many are inadequately tested for safety
- They provide questionable fire safety benefits as used in some consumer and building products
The major uses of flame retardant chemicals by volume in the U.S. are:
- Building insulation
- Polyurethane foam
- Wire and cable
Executive Director Arlene Blum introduces flame retardants and flammability standards in a 15-minute-long TEDx talk
In addition to flame retardants, there are five other families or “classes” of chemicals which contain many of the harmful substances that are found in everyday products. Visit sixclasses.org to learn more.
Properties of Concern
Organohalogen and organophosphorous flame retardants often have one or more of the following properties of concern. Chemicals with all these properties are considered Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and present significant risks to human health and environment.
Do not break down into safer chemicals in the environment
Travel far from the source of release and are distributed around the world
Build up in people and other animals, becoming most concentrated at the top of the food chain
Harmful to life. Flame retardants often have long-term rather than immediate harmful effects.
The Stockholm Convention
The Stockholm Convention is a global treaty of over 150 countries which aims to eliminate or reduce the release of POPs. The Convention has listed 22 chemicals to be banned globally, all of which are organohalogens, and several of which are organohalogen flame retardants or their by-products.
PBDEs, used primarily as flame retardants in furniture, are structurally similar to the known human toxicants PBBs, PCBs, dioxins, and furans. In addition to having similar mechanisms of toxicity in animal studies, they also bio-accumulate in both humans and animals and persist in the environment. The Stockholm Convention has banned all 5 of these chemicals.