Study: Dramatic Rise in Flame Retardant Levels in Kids and Adults

WASHINGTON – Levels of a cancer-causing flame retardant are increasing dramatically in the bodies of American adults and children, according to a new study led by Duke University scientists, in collaboration with researchers at EWG and other universities.  

The study, published today in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, found that levels of chlorinated Tris, or TDCIPP, in adults rose fifteenfold from 2002 to 2015, and increased in children by a factor of four from 2010 to 2015. The study aggregated data from 14 earlier studies and found that levels of another flame retardant, triphenyl phosphate, or TPHP, also rose in adults.

California state regulators and independent researchers have concluded that adding flame retardants to foam in furniture and other products does very little, if anything, to protect us from fire risks. Given the significant increases of flame retardants’ presence in people’s bodies, more research is urgently needed to determine whether the levels of exposure are linked to adverse health effects.

“Our results suggest that exposure to TDCIPP has increased dramatically over the last decade and highlight a pressing need to understand how exposure might impact human health,” said Kate Hoffman, a professor of environmental science at Duke University and lead author of the study. “This is particularly true for children, whom our past research suggests may have higher levels of exposure than adults.”

Flame retardant chemicals can build up more in children than adults because they breathe in more air and are exposed to more dust particles relative to their body weight. Flame retardants, widely added to foam furniture and cushioning in baby products, can escape and accumulate in household air and in dust on floors where toddlers and babies play. Children frequently put their hands and other items in their mouths, which increases their exposures to chemicals.

In 2003, an EWG study found polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, in mothers’ milk. The study raised concerns about PBDEs’ harm to children, which was instrumental in getting the chemicals taken off the market in 2005. When the chemical industry looked for a substitute to meet flammability standards, manufacturers turned to other chemicals that were already known to be toxic, such as chlorinated Tris.

“We simply can’t keep replacing one toxic chemical with another poorly studied substance,” said Sonya Lunder, EWG senior analyst. “In the 1970s, my mother sent letters to the Consumer Product Safety Commission to get Tris out of kids’ pajamas. But now my kids are exposed to more Tris than I was, because there are no safeguards to keep cancer-causing chemicals off the market.”

It’s an ongoing problem known as regrettable substitution – the replacement of one problem chemical with another than may be just as harmful.

For example, some products are now labeled “BPA-free” to allay concerns about bisphenol A, a plasticizing ingredient that has been found to disrupt hormones. But in many products BPA has been replaced bisphenol S, or BPS, which also disrupts hormones. In addition to being used as a flame retardant, TPHP is also used in nail polish as a replacement for the hormone disrupter dibutyl phthalate.

“The extraordinary increase in this cancer-causing chemical in our bodies should set off alarm bells for government agencies and the private sector,” said Erika Schreder, science director of the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future. “Companies need to move to safer materials, and government agencies can help by restricting the use of toxic flame retardants.”

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