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Blog/Opinion: Healthy home tip - avoid harmful fire retardants

Chemical fire retardants have become common in consumer products, particularly in highly flammable synthetic materials. Some of the most toxic are brominated fire retardants (BFRs), which include chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).


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EWG suggests that you avoid toxic fire retardants when you can. Choose products made from less flammable natural materials, or made by manufacturers who use safer alternatives.

The nation's chemical laws don't sufficiently protect you from the harmful effects of fire retardants. These chemicals are commonly encountered in our homes and offices.


Why you should minimize exposures


Scientists have found that exposure to minute doses of toxic fire retardants such as PBDEs at critical points in development can damage reproductive systems and cause deficits in motor skills, learning, memory and hearing, as well as changes in behavior.

The PBDEs in everyday items like furniture, computers, televisions and other electronics migrate into the home environment and could expose children to concentrations exceeding the EPA's recommended safe level. EWG tests found much higher concentrations of these chemicals in young children than in their mothers - because children ingest more PBDEs. The chemicals migrate out of products and stick to kids' hands, toys and other objects they put in their mouths.

Until all PBDEs are banned from consumer products (including imports) and fire safety regulations are revised to promote safer solutions, American families - especially our children - will continue to be needlessly exposed to harmful chemicals.


Which household products contain toxic fire retardants


PBDEs are most commonly found in polyurethane foam products (like couches and upholstered chairs, mattresses and pads, futons, pillows, children's car seats and carpet padding, among many others), but are also in hundreds of other everyday products, including electronics equipment (like TVs, remotes, and cell phones), lighting, wiring, building materials, textiles, furniture and industrial paints.


Foam products made before 2005 are more likely to contain PBDEs. The type of PBDEs used in foam products has not been manufactured in the U.S. since 2004 and cannot be imported for use in the U.S. (through a loophole, imported foam products may still contain PBDEs since they continue to be manufactured and used in other countries). Fire-retardant pajamas are not treated with PBDEs.


You can reduce your family’s exposures


PBDEs contaminate the bodies of nearly every American and widely contaminate common foods. Some exposure to these toxic fire retardants is unavoidable. But if you take these simple precautions around household foam products and electronics - the two home items where fire retardants are most commonly found - you can minimize your exposures:

1. Avoid PBDEs in foam.

Newer U.S.-made foam items (purchased after 2004) are unlikely to contain PBDEs, because the chemical is no longer made in the U.S. and cannot be imported. But older products and imported foam furniture may contain PBDEs.

If you can't replace older items likely to contain PBDEs, you can still take these simple steps to reduce your family's exposure:

  • Inspect foam items. Replace anything with a ripped cover or foam that is misshapen and breaking down. If you can't replace these items, try to keep the covers intact. Beware of older items like car seats and mattress pads whose foam is not completely encased in protective fabric.
  • Use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter. These vacuums are more efficient at trapping small particles and will likely remove more contaminants and other allergens from your home. High efficiency "HEPA-filter" air cleaners may also reduce particle-bound contaminants in your house.
  • Don't reupholster foam furniture. Even those items without PBDEs might contain other, poorly studied fire retardants with potentially harmful effects
  • Be careful when removing old carpet. The padding may contain PBDEs. Isolate your work area from the rest of your home. Clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and mop to pick up as many of the small particles as possible. Remove all scrap foam from your home and yard immediately.
  • When purchasing new products, ask the manufacturers what type of fire retardants they use. Avoid products with brominated fire retardants and be aware that "natural" latex foam and natural cotton are flammable and depending on the product may by law require a fire retardant method. Because the replacement chemicals for PBDEs in foam are not fully tested for their health effects, opt for less flammable fabrics and materials, like leather or wool.
  • Support efforts to reform fire safety laws. Toxic fire retardants are often added to consumer items even though there is little evidence that the benefits outweigh the risks. For example, SB 772 in California seeks to exempt 4 items—breastfeeding pillows, strollers, infant carriers and bassinets—from the requirements that they be made fire resistant. Elsewhere activists have pushed for "fire safe cigarettes" which would dramatically reduce fire-related injuries without the use of toxic chemicals.

2. Avoid PBDEs in electronics.

One form of PBDE (known as Deca) is still used in computer and television monitors and other electronic products. It's not subject to any use restrictions on the federal level. Recently, it has been banned in Maine, Washington and Oregon. To reduce exposures, we suggest that you:

  • Identify the electronics in or around your home - they're all likely to contain PBDEs:
    • In-home electronics: TV components, mobile phones, fax machines, remote controls, video equipment, printers, photocopiers, toner cartridges, scanners.
    • Household items: kitchen appliances, fans, heaters or hair dryers, water heaters, and lamp sockets.
    • Transportation: electronic components, automobile fabrics, plastics and electronics.
  • Prevent young children from touching and especially mouthing fire-retardant items as much as possible (especially your cell phone or remote!), and wash their hands prior to eating.
  • Shop PBDE-free. Many companies have committed not to use PBDEs – ask before you buy!

3. A word about pajamas.

Some parents are concerned that their children will be exposed to chemicals while wearing fire-retardant pajamas. Pajamas are not treated with PBDEs, though synthetic fabrics are often made with a chemical additive to make them fire resistant. Chemicals used in sleepwear labeled "fire resistant" will remain in the fabric for at least 50 washes. To avoid any chemicals in sleepwear and reduce the risk of igniting sleepwear, we suggest you choose natural fibers that are inherently fire resistant and snug-fitting. And, of course, keep kids away from matches, candles and cigarettes.



Environmental Working Group



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Healthy home tip - avoid harmful fire retardants:  Created on February 27th, 2010.  Last Modified on April 11th, 2010

About Environmental Working Group (EWG)

Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.


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