Flame retardants. They’ve been in the news a bit lately, so you’ve probably heard of them. But maybe you haven’t. After all, there are so many chemicals in the news these days. Flame retardants (FR) have been used for several decades now to manufacture products that resist catching and spreading fire. Good uses for this are plastic casings on electronic devices and wiring that may actually spontaneously catch fire. Less good uses are our clothing, carpets, and furniture.
Historically, I can see it not being a tremendously bad idea for household fabrics to contain FR – given that a lot of people smoked cigarettes in the home. Nonetheless, I’d say it’s still pretty much your own stupid fault if you let your smoking habit burn down your house. But when the flammability of synthetic fabrics came to the attention of the U.S. government, the Flammable Fabrics Act was born (1954) and fabrics that didn’t meet the grade began being coated with FR.
Brominated flame retardants (BFR) started being used during the 1970s. Prior to that, other chemicals were used to make things ‘fireproof’ – remember asbestos and PCBs? PCBs were banned in the U.S. (1978) when they were found to be toxic and started showing up in high concentrations all over the food web. That’s called bioaccumulation. Well, BFRs are the new PCBs. Structurally very similar to PCBs, it’s not a big surprise that they too bioaccumulate and are now found at high levels in things like breast milk (compare U.S. to other countries).
How do FR end up in our bodies? The data aren’t in yet but studies have shown that BFR are in our food, in the air, and can be absorbed right through our skin. Here’s an interesting statistic for you: in 1980 there were about 300 deaths due to clothing igniting, compared with about 100 in the YR 2000. Does that reflect an increased use of FR in clothing or, say, a reduction in smoking?
Another stat – the Bromine Science and Environment Foundation estimates that 280 lives/yr are saved by BFR for all fire-related deaths (4000/yr)…but at what cost? BFR are known mutagens, suspected carcinogens, and neurotoxins to boot – and we are all exposed to them, not just people who are afraid their clothing or couches are going to catch fire.
As Annie Leonard said in Story of Stuff, “We take our pillows, we douse them in a neurotoxin, and then we bring them home and put our heads on them for 8 hours a night to sleep? You’d think…we could think of a better way to stop our heads from catching on fire at night.”
NOTE: This and the previous blog ‘Are chemicals people too?’ were prompted by an editorial in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science, titled Toxic Dilemmas. It was exciting to see the use and toxicity of BFRs discussed at this level. Notably, Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy wrote “…the U.S. regulatory system for toxic industrial chemicals is not effective and is a threat to public health.”