Tip 4 - Avoid fire retardants
Reports & Consumer Guides
Healthy Home Tips: Tip 4 - Avoid fire retardants
Chemical fire retardants have become common in consumer products, particularly in highly flammable synthetic materials. Some of the most toxic fire retardants include chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and chlorinated Tris.
Until the nation's fire safety standards consider the toxicity of common fire retardant chemicals, EWG suggests that you avoid contact with toxic fire retardants as best you can. Choose products made from less flammable natural materials, or made by manufacturers who choose the safest alternatives.
In this tip you can learn:
- Why you should minimize exposures.
- Which household products contain toxic fire retardants.
- You can reduce your family’s exposures.
Scientists have found that exposure to minute doses of toxic fire retardants at critical points in development can damage reproductive systems and cause deficits in motor skills, hearing, learning, memory and behavior.
The fire retardants 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 levels. EWG tests found much higher concentrations of fire retardants known as PBDE in young children than in their mothers - because children ingest more of these chemicals than adults. The chemicals migrate out of products and stick to kids' hands, toys and other objects they put in their mouths. Read our report on PBDEs in mothers and their toddlers to learn more about children's exposures.
Until toxic fire retardants are not allowed in 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.
Fire retardants are commonly found in polyurethane foam furniture like couches and upholstered chairs, mattresses and pads, futons and carpet padding. Product studies also find fire retardants in the foam of children's products including carseats, changing table pads, portable crib mattresses, nap mats, and nursing pillows.
Some electronics like TVs, remotes, and cell phones, as well as building materials also contain chemical retardants.
Foam products made before 2005 are most hazardous. Older foam items commonly contain PBDEs, a highly toxic fire retardant mixture now removed from the U.S. market. Since 2004 these chemicals have not been manufactured in the U.S. However once PBDEs were withdrawn, other concerning chemicals took their place.
PBDEs contaminate the bodies of nearly every American and widely contaminate common foods. Replacement chemicals have not been as extensively studied, but are also a concern. Some exposure to these toxic fire retardants is unavoidable. But if you take these simple precautions you can minimize your exposures:
Avoid fire retardants in foam.
Most foam furniture and baby products contain chemical fire retardants. You cannot completely avoid them, but should 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. Take particular note of 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. Read more about PBDEs in household dust.
- 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 is made of scrap foam that may contain fire retardants. 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.
Avoid fire retardants in electronics.
Chemicals are added to the plastic parts of computer and television monitors and other electronic products. It's not subject to any use restrictions on the federal level. Recently, Deca PBDE has been banned in consumer products, but other chemicals will take its place. To reduce exposures we suggest that you:
- 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.
- Get rid of dust. Use a lightly moistened cloth to wipe off dusty surfaces.
- Shop PBDE-free. Many companies are trying to use the least toxic chemicals – ask before you buy!
A word about pajamas.
Some parents are concerned that their children will be exposed to chemicals while wearing fire-retardant pajamas. To our knowledge children's pajamas are not treated with chemical fire retardants. Still as a precaution you might want to choose natural fibers that are inherently fire resistant and snug-fitting. And, of course, keep kids away from matches, candles and cigarettes.