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

Should You Be Concerned About PFAS Chemicals?

A group of substances known as PFAS chemicals are behind a variety of everyday conveniences that make our lives a little bit easier. They line pizza boxes an…

08 Apr 2019

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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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For 10 Years, a Chemical Not EPA Approved Was in Their Drinking Wate…

For 10 years, some residents in Denmark, South Carolina, have been suspicious of the rust-colored water coming from their taps. They've been collecting sampl…

28 Nov 2018

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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 fluori…

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 Western…

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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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

Biomonitoring California

Speaker: Nerissa Wu Biomonitoring California Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2019 Date & Time Friday, …

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Flame Retardants in Electronics: Is Fire Safety versus Health Safety…

Speaker: Michael Kirschner President, Design Chain Associates, LLC Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2019 Dat…

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Advancing Healthier Alternatives

Speaker: Lauren Heine Northwest Green Chemistry Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2019 Date & Time Frida…

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What Do We Know & What Do We Need to Know About Organophosphate Flam…

Speaker: Seth Fernandez UC Riverside Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2019 Date & Time Friday, February…

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Proposition 65 and Reducing the Use of Chemicals of Concern

Speaker: Lauren Zeise California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyo…

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PFAS Contaminating Our Planet: What Can We Do?

Speaker: Pamela Miller Alaska Community Action on Toxics and IPEN Co-Chair Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2019…

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Tracking Pollutants from Products to the Poles

Speaker: Rainer Lohmann University of Rhode Island Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2019 Date & Time Fr…

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PFAS Updates

Speaker: Tom Bruton UC Berkeley, Green Science Policy Institute Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2019 Date …

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The Class Concept is Catching On

Speaker: Arlene Blum UC Berkeley, Green Science Policy Institute Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2019 Date …

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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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