Are Californians more flame retardant than the rest of us??

TeriNat4.jpgA study released today by Silent Spring Institute finds higher concentrations of toxic PBDEs in California residents, raising concerns about the unintended effects of furniture flammability laws on children's health.

Regional data from a large CDC-sponsored study was re-analyzed and found to show that participants living in California had double the PBDEs in their blood than residents of other states. While today's study only evaluated concentrations in adults, EWG recently reported that kids – like Natalie, pictured with her mom Teri Olle of San Francisco – have significantly higher PBDE levels than their mothers. This is especially worrisome because pregnancy and early life are the times of greatest vulnerability to PBDEs' toxic effects.

Californians' exposures are due to a unique state law that requires chemical fire retardants be used on the foam inside furniture. PBDEs are a toxic fire retardant that was used to meet this standard until 2005, when they were pulled off the market due to safety concerns.

The PBDE levels analyzed in today's study were collected from nearly 2,000 people in 2003 and 2004, when PBDEs were legally used. Products with PBDEs include automobile seats, couches, easy chairs, and foam padding in baby items like seats, mattresses or nursing pillows. Foam scraps containing PBDEs were glued together for carpet padding.

Despite the ban, these exposures will continue for decades. The fire retardants made their way out of these home and office items and into the environment. We ingest them in food, or hand-to-mouth contact with PBDE particles in dust or sticking to items kids put in their mouths.

Today's findings highlight the significant impact that fire retardancy laws can have on public health. Sadly, this is a lesson that our government hasn't adequately internalized. Instead, the shift away from PBDEs has occurred with little thought about the toxicity of replacement chemicals.

PBDE makers now sell a replacement fire retardant mixture that contains a brominated phthalate (some phthalates are potently toxic and were recently banned from kids' toys) and tris, a chemical that was banned from children's sleepwear in the 1970s due to cancer concerns. California advocates have pushed for the most toxic forms of fire retardants to be banned from new products, but they have not yet been successful at ensuring that our efforts to protect kids from one hazard don't inadvertently expose them to another.

Wondering what to do at home with all this info? Check out our quick tips for avoiding toxic fire retardants:

  1. Inspect foam items. Replace anything with a ripped cover or foam that is misshapen and breaking down. If you cannot replace these items try to keep the covers intact. Beware of older items like car seats or foam mattress toppers where the foam is not completely encased in a protective barrier.
  2. Use a vacuums 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. HEPA-filter air cleaners may also reduce particle-bound contaminants in your house.
  3. Wash your hands and your children's hands before eating. Try to keep kids from putting toys and electronic items in their mouths.
  4. Choose snug-fitting cotton PJs for kids. Although PBDEs were never used in clothing, other chemical fire retardants are used on synthetic (fleece) pajamas.

Photo by Bonnie Durrance

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