Health & Environment


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


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


Press: Health & Environment

The Conversation: PFAS ‘Forever Chemicals’ are Widespread and Threat…

Like many inventions, the discovery of Teflon happened by accident. In 1938, chemists from Dupont (now Chemours) were studying refrigerant gases when, …

09 Oct 2020

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New York Times: These Everyday Toxins May Be Hurting Pregnant Women …

PFAS, industrial chemicals used to waterproof jackets and grease-proof fast-food containers, may disrupt pregnancy with lasting effects. This is the secon…

23 Sep 2020

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Hazardous Chemicals and Government Silence — a Dangerous Mix

Imagine this: More than six million Americans have drinking water that is poisoned by a group of closely related chemical…

26 Mar 2020

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Advocates Petition EPA to Regulate PFAS as Hazardous Waste

Community advocates in several states have jointly petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate hundreds of per- and polyfluoroalkyl s…

17 Jan 2020

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Bucks-Montco Group Joins Nationwide Petition to Designate PFAS as Ha…

Thousands of residents from Bucks and Montgomery counties have joined communities across the country in a national petition demanding that the Enviro…

16 Jan 2020

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Defense Bill Boosts Climate Resilience, Ends PFAS Foam Use

A sweeping defense bill would mandate phasing out by 2024 firefighting foam that contains chemicals linked to cancer and other hea…

10 Dec 2019

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From Science to Policy: Fighting Forever Chemicals

While working on his dissertation at the UC Berkeley School of Environmental Engineering, Tom Bruton had high hopes for developing a groundbreaking techno…

12 Oct 2019

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Scaling Mountains to Ban Toxic Chemicals in Pajamas

In this Got Science? podcast, scientist and adventurer Arlene Blum discusses her research on cancer-causing chemicals in kid’s pajamas…

24 Sep 2019

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The Woman Who Got Bromine Out of Kids’ Pajamas Fears It’s Coming Bac…

Among the technical and sometimes arcane-seeming debates at this year’s meeting of the International Code Council was one that grew surprisingly emotional:…

27 Aug 2019

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The People's Pharmacy Interview with Arlene Blum

Arlene was interviewed by Joe and Terry Graedon on the dangerous substances added to everyday products. The podcast, Show 1177: How You Can Avoid …

21 Aug 2019

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PFAS Chemicals in Food: Expert QA

Millions of people have eaten out of them: Molded fiber bowls, the popular food containers from restaurants like Chipotle and Sweetgreen. They are supp…

08 Aug 2019

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“Forever Chemical” Replacements on the Rise in the Great Lakes

As industry phases out certain toxic PFAS chemicals, the compounds are decreasing in and around the Great Lakes, but replacement chemicals—which some argue …

22 Jul 2019

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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

Oregon Association of Clean Water Agencies Conference

Executive Director Arlene Blum gave the opening keynote presentation: “Tackling Toxics: For Healthier People, Planet and Products.” [toggle header="More about this event…

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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 Rojello Fernández UC Riverside Event The Flame Retardant Dilemma and Beyond 2019 Date & Time Friday, …

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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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