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

Contaminated Groundwater, a Toxic Legacy of Georgia’s Air Bases

For decades, the United States Air Force used a toxic firefighting foam that contaminated water near bases and exposed communities to chemicals linked to cance…

03 Jan 2019

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Your questions about PFAS, answered.

Tom Bruton is a scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute. He joined Stateside to discuss what makes PFAS chemicals so difficult to clean up. T…

16 Oct 2018

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Deal would allow airports to stop using PFAS-containing foams

A provision in legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration would allow airports to use firefighting foams that don't contain fluorina…

08 Oct 2018

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'What did we do?' Families anxious about chemicals found in tap wate…

It's been about three weeks since Tammy Cooper last drank water from her tap. That's when she saw a warning on Facebook for residents of her small Wester…

16 Aug 2018

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Multinational insulation manufacturers phase out flame retardant HBC…

Multinational manufacturers Dow, Owens Corning and Kingspan have phased out halogenated flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) from their building…

19 Jul 2018

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Michigan Radio: Michigan Will Spend $1.7 Million to Test for PFAS in…

Michigan will spend $1.7 million to test water supplies around the state for certain kinds of industrial chemical contaminants. The chemicals are known …

18 May 2018

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Truthout: In Search of Safe Replacements for Harmful Chemicals Used …

When Donald Taves discovered two kinds of fluoride in his blood in the late 1960s, he immediately knew something was wrong. Everyone assumed that blood co…

11 May 2018

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ChemicalWatch: US body abandons plans for new flammability standard

The National Fire Protection Association in the US has voted to halt development of a new flammability standard for residential upholstered furniture. Th…

24 Apr 2018

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Toronto Star: Toxic chemical laws are not protecting human health

Most people assume a chemical in their clothes, cosmetics or couch has been thoroughly tested for safety. Unfortunately, such testing is often nowhere near …

02 Apr 2018

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Ensia: In Search of Safe Replacements for Harmful Chemicals Used in …

When Donald Taves discovered two kinds of fluoride in his blood in the late 1960s, he immediately knew something was wrong. Everyone assumed that blood contai…

26 Mar 2018

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Circle of Blue: Perfluorinated Chemicals Health Study Included in Co…

House and Senate negotiators secured $10 million in the fiscal year 2018 budget for a study of people on military bases who were exposed to perfluorinated …

22 Mar 2018

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Colorado Springs Business Journal: Chemicals most seminal health cha…

In January 2016, the CSBJ reported highly fluorinated toxic industrial chemicals called PFCs contaminated drinking water provided to more than 80,000 re…

16 Feb 2018

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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, and heartbreaking. And lead is only one of the industrial ch…

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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

Healthier Products, Healthier People: Chemicals Management Applying …

Speaker: Arlene Blum Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute Event Partners Healthcare Date April 5, 2018 …

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Tackling Toxics: The Chemical Class Approach Toward Healthier Produc…

Speaker: Arlene Blum Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute Event Health Canada Date April 3, 2018 Loca…

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Mountains & Molecules

Speaker: Arlene Blum Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute Event University of Toronto Date April 2, 2018 …

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The Chemical Class Approach Towards Healthier Products and Materials

Speaker: Arlene Blum Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute Event University of Toronto Date April 2, 2018 …

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Tackling Toxics: For Healthier Hospitals, People & Planet

Speaker: Arlene Blum Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute Event Vizient Environmental Advisory Council Dat…

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When Do We Need PFAS? The Chemical Class Approach Towards a Healthie…

Speaker: Arlene Blum Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute Event 2018 Emerging Contaminants Summit Date Ma…

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Flame Retardants in the Aircraft Cabin

Speaker: Judith Anderson Industrial Hygienist, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Be…

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This Little PIGE Performed a Quick Analysis for Total Fluorine

Speaker: Graham Peaslee Researcher, University of Notre Dame Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2018 Date …

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Why Do Fire Fighters Support the Banning of Flame Retardants?

Speaker: Jay Fleming Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2018 Date …

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Regulating Chemicals by Class: The Inside Story of a Giant Leap Forw…

Speaker: Eve Gartner Litigator, Earthjustice Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2018 Date & Time Friday, …

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The Teflon Toxin: How PFAS Got Into Drinking Water and Spread Throug…

Speaker: Sharon Lerner Reporter, The Intercept Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2018 Date & Time Friday…

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Tackling Toxics: For Healthier Products, People & Planet

Speaker: Arlene Blum Executive Director, Green Science Policy Institute Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2018 …

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