Health & Environment

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How dust bunnies can make you sick, by Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato

Introduction

Flame retardant chemicals are added to many different consumer products and are associated with a variety of serious health concerns, including disruption of hormones, developmental and reproductive problems. These chemicals do not stay in products- they are found in the blood, fat and breast milk of nearly all people tested, as well being ubiquitous in wildlife and the environment worldwide.

How are we exposed to flame retardant chemicals?

Flame retardant chemicals and health

The highest levels of PBDE flame retardants are found in Californians and their house dust, due to the 1975 TB117 furniture flammability standard.

PBDE dust graph

Amount of PBDE flame retardant in house dust from various locations (data from Zota 2008).

Research also shows higher levels of flame retardants in vulnerable populations including children, people of color and in low-income households. Learn more about flame retardants as an environmental justice issue on our blog.

Our interdisciplinary peer-reviewed paper examines the major uses and known toxic effects of commonly-used halogenated flame retardants and their by-products. We found that commonly used flame retardants:

What are the health concerns associated with flame retardants?

FR health effects

  • Are associated with endocrine disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function
  • Enter the environment through multiple pathways and are global contaminants
  • Are persistent in the environment and do not break down into safer chemicals
  • Tend to bioaccumulate, or build up in people and animals
  • Make disposal or recycling of products to which they are added more difficult
  • Create toxic, carcinogenic byproducts if burned, which may be associated with higher rates of cancer in firefighters

Flame retardant chemicals and the environment


Many halogenated flame retardants are structurally related to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and are also environmentally persistent and bioaccumulative. Because of their persistence, halogenated flame retardants have become distributed around the globe and are found at remote places where they have never been used. Furthermore, even if they are banned and no longer manufactured, chemicals already released to the environment continue to persist and spread. Though a majority of PBDEs were manufactured and used in North America, a 2013 study found PBDEs in tree bark at far-flung locations in Nepal and Tasmania, almost 10 years after their phase-out.

tree bark PBDE map

Size of circle is proportionate to the concentration of total PBDEs (ng/ g of lipid weight) found in tree bark at the indicated location (from data in Salamova 2013).

“Halogenated flame retardants possess many of the same chemical properties as PCBs. We can learn from the PCB experience that once released into the environment, halogenated flame retardants will present very challenging and expensive cleanup measures.”
–Dick Luthy, Chair, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University

Halogenated flame retardants build up in wildlife and are found throughout freshwater, marine, and terrestrial ecosystems globally, with the highest levels in top of the food chain predators like birds of prey and marine mammals. Studies find that flame retardant levels are associated with altered behaviors and decreased reproductive success in some species.

Studies regarding effects on wildlife

wildlife FRs

Resources

Press: Health & Environment

AL.com: Substitute chemicals for cancer-linked PFCs may also be harm…

A pair of long-lasting, man-made chemicals called PFOA and PFOS have generated controversy and lawsuits in recent years, worldwide and in Alabama, but a …

22 Feb 2017

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MedPage Today: Overlooked PFASs: A 'Major Concern for Society'

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), considered to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals, need better regulation because of vast market presence and…

22 Feb 2017

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The Hans India: Greasepaper packaging contains harmful chemicals

We may opt to cut back on fast food to avoid an overload of fat and calories. Yet, there is another reason to resist the temptation to indulge in fast food. The grease…

04 Feb 2017

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Times Herald-Record: Study: Toxic chemicals in Newburgh water, local…

  The family of toxic chemicals that includes the ones behind the closure of the City of Newburgh's primary water supply and the contamination of p…

02 Feb 2017

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Bloomberg: Burgers Aren’t the Only Fast-Food Products That Could Har…

  The risky chemicals that keep cooking grease from leaking out of fast-food containers are widespread, according to a peer-revie…

02 Feb 2017

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Crain's Chicago Business: Fast-food wrappers may contain dangerous c…

The risky chemicals that keep cooking grease from leaking out of fast-food containers are widespread, according to a peer-reviewed study released Wednesday. Researc…

02 Feb 2017

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Michigan Radio: Study finds fluorinated chemicals in fast food packa…

Listen A new study found fluorinated chemicals in one third of the fast food packages researchers tested. The chemicals keep oil and grease from le…

02 Feb 2017

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Fusion: Another reason to avoid fast food: Its packaging might conta…

  Fast food obviously isn’t great for your health, but a new study from the Silent Spring Institute is providing even more incentive to cut back…

01 Feb 2017

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WebMD: Many Fast-Food Containers Have Risky Chemical

  The next time you get a muffin with your coffee or pick up a hamburger at a drive-thru, you could also be getting a side of chemicals that have…

01 Feb 2017

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Fair Warning: Ketchup or PFAS With Those Fries?

   As if cheeseburgers, fries and microwave popcorn weren’t enough of a dietary worry, now comes word that fast-food packaging is also a cause for concer…

01 Feb 2017

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The Telegraph: Warning: fast food packaging and grease-proof paper c…

    Some fast food packaging contains potentially harmful chemicals that can leach into food, warns a new study.Researchers found more tha…

01 Feb 2017

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CBS SF - KPIX 5: Study: Fast Food Wrappers Contain Cancer-Causing Ch…

  You already knew fast food wasn’t the healthiest option, but a new study is revealing a new health concern, in the packaging. Fluorinated chemical…

01 Feb 2017

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Science & Policy Blog: Health & Environment

A Day in the Life at GSP: Veronica Chin

Out with the old, in with the new! Swapping old couches for new ones sounds simple enough. But when you’re doing it for twelve homes it gets complicated - phone calls, de…

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Forty years later TSCA gets an overhaul

In June, President Obama signed into law the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (TSCA reform, hereafter), a revision to the 1976 Toxic Substance…

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Monitoring chemicals in our environment with wristbands

Whether to show support for a cause or track daily activity, wristbands and tracking bracelets have become a trendy modern accessory. Why Monitor? Six Classes and…

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A Perfect Storm

The phrase “a perfect storm” has gone from wildly popular to wildly unpopular. Detractors say it should be banned due to overuse. But it’s not banned yet. A perfec…

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Lead in Water Action Kits Now Available

We’ve heard the stories about lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan. The situation is appalling, infuriating, heartbreaking. But, as NY Times columnist Nick Kristof write…

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“Remove the Handle” – Calling on the CPSC to Turn Off the Toxic Pump

Should you ever find yourself enjoying a pint at London’s John Snow Pub, you might raise a glass to the pub’s namesake, Dr. John Snow, the “father of epidemiology.” In th…

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Backfire: Unintended Consequences of Flame Retardants

Fun fact. Combustion scientist, Donald Lucas, started his career doing research at temperatures near absolute zero (−430°F) before working in combustion, where temperatur…

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The Nature of the Beast

This article is the second installment of our blog series, “Scientist Spotlight: The Scientists Behind our Consumer Products Petition." [caption id="attachment_7812" a…

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Presentations: Health & Environment

Accumulation of Perfluoroalkyl Acids in Food Crops

Speaker: Christopher Higgins Associate Professor, Colorado School of Mines Event Webinar: Highly Fluorinated Chemicals: A St…

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Tackling Toxics: The “Six Classes” Approach Towards Healthier Produc…

Speaker: Arlene Blum Research Associate, Chemistry, UC Berkeley; Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute Event We…

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Tackling Toxics: The “Six Classes” Approach Towards Healthier Produc…

Speaker: Arlene Blum Visiting Scholar, Chemistry, UC Berkeley; Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute Event The …

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Denmark's Largest Retailer Shares the Business Case for Phasing Out …

Speaker: Malene Teller-Blume Nonfood Quality and CSR Manager, Coop Denmark Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond …

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Local Action and Fluorinated Compounds

Speaker: Jen Jackson, MA Toxics Reduction and Healthy Ecosystems Program Manager, SF Department of the Environment Event The…

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Flame Retardants: Benefits versus Harm

Speaker: Arlene Blum, PhD Visiting Scholar, Chemistry, UC Berkeley and Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute Eve…

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Toward Responsible Disposal of Couches and TVs

Speaker: Sara Petty, PhD Senior Research Scientist, Green Science Policy Institute Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Bey…

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How Safety Standards May Impact Use of Flame Retardants

Speaker: Avery Lindeman, MSc Deputy Director, Green Science Policy Institute Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond …

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Flame Retardants in Upholstered Furniture: History and Implications

Speaker: Arlene Blum University of California, Berkeley and Green Science Policy Institute, U.S. Event Management of Waste F…

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A Roadmap to Responsible Disposal

Speaker: Sara Petty Green Science Policy Institute, U.S. Event Management of Waste Foams and Plastics Mixed with Flame Retar…

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Waste Management in the U.S., Landfills, and Flame Retardants

Speaker: Olya Keen University of North Carolina, Charlotte, U.S. Event Management of Waste Foams and Plastics Mixed with Fla…

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Solid Waste Management Practice and Research

Speaker: Ramin Yazdani University of California at Davis and Yolo County, U.S. Event Management of Waste Foams and Plastics …

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