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May 12, 2004

PBDEs - Fire Retardants in Dust: Recommendations

Just as high levels of PCBs still remain in the environment today thirty years after being banned, even if all BFR production ended tomorrow, PBDEs and other brominated flame retardants will be around for many years. With 450 million pounds of PBDEs and other brominated flame retardants used each year, we must act now to limit future contamination by moving quickly to phase out these toxins and adopt more sustainable methods of fire protection.

What should government do?

  • The EPA should phase out the last unregulated PBDEs. It is no longer possible to ignore evidence that Deca is a threat to human health and the environment. In the interim, all products containing brominated flame retardants must be labeled so that consumers have the option of choosing products without them.
  • The EPA and Consumer Product Safety Commission must give American consumers clear advice on the safe use and disposal of products containing Penta, Octa and Deca PBDEs. Although the first two will be phased out by the end of 2004, American homes are full of products containing PBDE. Millions of mattresses and couches and miles of carpet padding and industrial drapes are sources of contamination to American homes and landfills.
  • EPA must screen new and existing chemicals for their health effects. In particular, potential replacement fire retardants must be adequately tested to ensure that they are not persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic. Testing must include the outcomes most relevant to children's health. Changes in product design that decrease the need for chemical fire retardants should be encouraged over simply switching to different, less studied chemicals.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should expand the fledgling national biomonitoring program to include a greater number of chemicals and people. The study provides critical data in identifying chemicals that are accumulating in our homes, in our bodies and in the environment; tracking trends in exposure; providing data needed to more fully understand human health risks; and helping EPA and other agencies effectively transition businesses to safer, less persistent chemicals than those in current common use.
  • Congress should increase funding for urgently needed additional research on toxic fire retardants, including their health effects, how they get into our homes, the human body, and current levels of accumulation in people, animals and the environment.

What should industry do?

In the absence of government regulation, U.S. manufacturers and users of chemical fire retardants should voluntarily comply with any action taken by the European Union. Chemical companies should work to minimize the toxicity of existing fire retardants and thoroughly test replacement chemicals for safety. Companies who use fire retardants in their products should follow the lead of some computer makers, who are redesigning their products so that fire retardants are not needed. Retailers should follow the example of IKEA and some other companies in demanding that their suppliers avoid the use of chemical fire retardants.

What should parents and other concerned consumers do?

EWG's studies have found that exposure to brominated fire retardants is unavoidable. EWG found them in the dust of every home and in the body of every participant tested. Our homes and offices are filled with brominated fire retardants in products including foam-padded furniture, computer and television screens, and the padding underneath our carpets.

Even if these toxic fire retardants were phased out immediately, our exposures to them would continue through the foods we eat or from the products in our households. In the absence of government safeguards to remove persistent toxins from household products, or labels which would allow consumers to choose less toxic products, parents should consider the following options:

  • Avoid contact with decaying or crumbing foam that might contain fire retardants. Replace couches, stuffed chairs, automobile seats that have exposed foam. If you can not afford to replace degrading foam products, cover them with a sturdy cloth and clean up the area around them with a high efficiency vacuum (equipped with a HEPA filter.) Do not reupholster foam furniture in homes where children or pregnant women live.
  • Be careful when removing and replacing the foam padding beneath carpets. Isolate the work area with plastic and avoid tracking construction dust into the rest of your home. Clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum when you are finished.
  • Buy products with natural fibers (cotton and wool) that are naturally fire resistant.