You eat a healthy diet, you exercise, get adequate sunlight and prioritise your sleep. You live a healthy life… or so you think. Despite your best intentions, you live in a world full of a harmful man-made toxins. It’s in your mattress, the air you breath, your car, the curtains, even the device you’re using to read this article. These toxins are flame retardants. Synthetic chemicals used to reduce the risk of fire.
Unfortunatley, despite governments and manufacturers using flame retardants to protect us from harm, they have a dangerous side effect. Sure our mattress may be protected if we expose it to fire from say a candle, (didn’t we stop using fire for light in our home 100 years ago?), but these flame retardants off gas and end up in our bodies. In turn affecting thyroid health, fertility, brain function, IQ and even cancer tumors.
So what exactly are flame retardants? Where are they found, how dangerous are they and what can we do to avoid them? I answer all these questions below. I should also mention that I have put together a simple to read one page quick guide where you can learn how to minimise your exposure to dangerous flame retardants, and names of the worst offenders. You can access that by clicking HERE.
Firstly, flame retardants are used in products such as furniture, appliances, computers, mattresses and even clothing. They’re used to inhibit or delay the spread of fire through a chemical reaction with the flame. Their purpose is to protect us from the risk of fire. If an appliance short circuits and creates a flame, the plastic won’t ignite and burn down the house. Likewise, if you have a candle sitting on the table and knock it onto the carpet, the carpet won’t immediately catch fire.
All good and well.
But what actually are these flame retardants?
The first type of flame retardant was PBBs and PCBs or polybrominated biphenyls and polychlorinated biphenyls. These were banned in the 1970’s when it was discovered that they were extremely toxic to humans and have since been classed as ‘definite carcinogens in humans’.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) came next. PBDEs are known as brominated flame retardants (BFR’s) and work by having an inhibitory effect on combustion chemistry. It’s important to note that the banned PCB’s are structurally similar to PBDEs. Brominated flame retardants are further split into various groups. These include:
These flame retardants are commonly added to furniture, carpet padding, electronic devices, and other consumer products.
The PDBE’s were the most common form of flame retardants after the banning of PCBs. They were used in building materials, furniture, vehicles, plastics, polyurethane foam, textiles and electronics. However, research started to find that these new flame retardants were accumulating in human tissues via dust ingestion, dietary intake, absorption from dermal contact, and inhalation.
Worst, not only were these chemicals finding their way into our body, they were causing a range of health problems.
Thankfully some countries banned several types of PBDEs, but this is not a global ban and we continue to live in a world that contains high levels of these PBDE’s toxins. For example, the body burden of PBDE’s in Americans is 10 times higher than Europeans due to US regulations requiring additional flame retardants in buildings and furnishings. And as the most common pathway for these PBDE’s to enter the body is via inhalation of dust particles, anyone living in a home or building that is more than a decade old will still be exposed to high levels of PBDEs.
New forms of flame retardants are making their way into the products we use today. For Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) - which degrades down to the endocrine disruptor BPA - and hexabromocyclododecane, are still widely used.
This is a heavy metal that's mainly used for flame retardants, especially in children's clothing, toys, mattresses and seat covers. Unfortunately, it is a toxic heavy metal and air exposure leads to eye, heart and lungs problems. High levels of exposure can cause liver and kidney damage (2).
As mentioned above, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are synthetic chemicals used as flame retardants in a variety of consumer products. Within the PBDE family, there are 209 substance - called ‘congeners’. These include names such as DE–06F, DE–83R and BDE–49.
These are the nasty chemicals that can be absorbed through skin, inhaled or ingested. PBDEs are global contaminants that have been detected in human adipose tissue, serum, and/or breast milk samples collected in Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and the Arctic (3, 4) and concentrations are found in human breast milk (5). PBDE chemicals also persist for long periods not only in the body, but also in the environment.
This is a chlorinated organophosphate. First used as a flame retardant in children’s clothes, it was discontinued after children wearing these fabrics were found to have mutagenic byproducts in their urine.
Today is it commonly used in household products and is found in a third of all baby products (6). Animal studies show it is easily absorbed through the skin and GI tract and various studies have shown that it accumulates in human tissues, breast milk, fat and semen.
Another chemical compound used as a flame retardant though not as common as the other chemicals. The EU has listed it as a ‘substance of very high concern’. Also found in household dust and human breast milk.
Flame retardants are used in an ever-growing range of building materials, clothing, mattresses, furniture, car seats, airplanes, toys and appliances (I could go on).
Image source: Sourcewatch.org
The most common household items high in flame retardants that you and I are exposed to include:
Governments set standards for flammability levels. Manufactures add flame retardants to linings and padding, and often these chemicals are not properly bound and off gas into the air and body. In the USA it is possible to buy a mattress without flame retardant in the mattress, but this requires a prescription from a doctor.
If you are in the market for a baby mattress, be extra careful. A 2005 investigation tested a variety of baby products for toxic flame retardants. Many of the products tested contained the chemicals at concerning levels.
If you are looking to upgrade your mattress to something healthier for you and your family (and of course free of flame retardants) be sure to read my article - How To Choose A Toxin Free Healthy Mattress or download my Healthy Mattress Buyers Guide HERE.
Sofas and chairs are the main items here. Again, governments around the world set standards for how resistant the material has to be to fire. Though it is possible to buy furniture low or void of flame retardants.
If you are buying new furniture and you know it has been made with FRs, I highly recommend letting it sit for as long as possible before using it. Buying second hand or an ex-demo model is a good idea. Alternatively, look at buying furniture free of polyurethane foam. It is Flexible polyurethane foam (FPF) that is high in modern FR.
Remember, foams are one of the highest sources of FR's. Most modern furniture uses foam. You may be thinking that this isn't a big issue. But it is important to note that foam is full of air. Everytime you compress this foam (by sitting on it) all the air that is in the foam gets released into the environment. This air is contaminated with FR residue.
Carpet and carpet padding is another big culprit for FR exposure. If you are building a new home, try to avoid using carpet in your house and go with a natural floor finish (bamboo, wood etc) or even concrete. Especially if you expect to have young children crawling around on the floor.
The carpet padding is the worst offender, the foam used for the padding is high in FR. For more on FR and carpet be sure to read Raising Concerns About Chemicals in Recycled Carpet Padding.
Car Seats & Airplane seats
The high counts of FR from seats is due to the strict safety regulations around cars and planes, and also the foam used within the seat. Ideally, avoid buying new cars (go for an ex-demo model) or if you do purchase a new car, keep infants out of the car for as long as possible.
Indoor Air & Dust
Dust is the main pathway for FR load into the human body (7). The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and Environment found that BDE–99 (a substance under the PBDE group) levels in the air were 26 times higher than the recommended levels (8).
The worst offender is dust that has been exposed to heated plastic (i.e., from computers or tv sets). But dust from carpets and furniture is also problematic. Aim to air out your rooms as often as possible. Also, use a HEPA vacuum cleaner and clean often.
Sadly, as we dispose of old items, or throw them out once we learn of the items hidden health dangers, these toxic chemicals make their way into our soil and water ways. Soil samples continue to show the presence of FR’s around the world. The worst levels are found near factories and industrial cities.
We know that FR’s are in our environment, in our homes, in our bedding and even in the food we eat. But does it really matter? Do these chemicals make their way into our body?
It turns out they do.
Numerous peer reviewed studies have found that PBDE’s and other flame retardants have been detected in:
Before the banning of PDBE, researchers saw an exponential increase in PBDE levels in human breast milk (9). Thankfully these levels have started to decrease since regulators tightened controls.
But we are not out of the woods yet. The main source of exposure to PBDE is through dust and food intake (10). And as products manufactured before the ban still contain PBDEs, these can be released into the environment through regular use, volatilisation and deposition in dust.
Sadly, these chemicals have long half lives and remain in the environment while accumulating in our food chain.
When we take a look at the FRs that are still allowed in manufacturing (ie. TDCPP) we see similar results:
We now know that FR’s are not only present in our environment, but they’re making their way into our bodies.
So what does this mean for our health?
TDCPP exposure in animals negatively impacted thyroid levels, this was more pronounced when the animals were in their infancy (19, 20).
Thyroid health is vital for ones overall health, it plays a vital role in metabolism, vitality and proper functioning of the endocrine system. When it comes to human studies, it has been shown that PBDE exposure during pregnancy lowered thyroid hormone levels (21).
Thyroid disruptions in pregnant mothers or the foetus are associated with increased risk of ADHD & lower IQ scores.
FR’s seem to have a drastic impact on the foetus during pregnancy. Not only do these toxins impact thyroid health, but research has found that exposure to flame retardants during pregnancy can alter motor control, memory and learning abilities (22). PDBE exposure has been shown to affect neurodevelopment in newborns (23).
Flame retardants have been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and placenta. Expecting mothers have the potential to impact fetal health and development if exposed to flame retardants. Researchers also found that measurable levels of these toxins are present in a foetus as early as 7 weeks (26).
Finally, a 2010 paper found that female FR exposure increased the time to pregnancy (25) while also increasing the risk of a preterm birth (29).
As I have mentioned a few times already, these chemicals are making their way into breast milk. Knowing the harmful effects FR’s have on the body, this should be of great concern for any new mother.
Many of the flame retardants are fat soluble, so they accumulate in fatty areas such as breast tissue and make their way into breast milk (27). Researchers have found that though contamination levels have decreases in recent years, they are still at a level of extreme concern (28).
Though there are a lot of issues around pregnancy and FR exposure, more worrying is how FR exposure in woman decreases fertility rates (30).
Fat gain is a complex issue. Those who simply believe it’s a result of eating too much or exercising too little need to look into human biology and hormonal function. Unfortunatley, the picture becomes more complex when we add in FR exposure.
We have already seen how FRs can impact thyroid health (thyroid health is closely linked to fat loss/gain). But there may be a more direct link between FR and obesity.
There is evidence linking prenatal PBDE exposure to metabolic issues in offspring. PBDE is shown to accumulate in fat tissue and alter insulin signalling - which can increase the likelihood of obesity (31).
This finding was supported by an animal study that fund FR exposure at prenatal stages led to the development of obesity and insulin resistance in adulthood (32). Further studies linked FR exposure to increased risk of Metabolic Syndrome (33).
High levels of flame retardants in human blood are strongly related to lower intelligence and attention rates (34). But the biggest concern is around prenatal exposure to FR, as that is associated with higher hyperactivity scores in children (35), and ADHD issues (36).
One human studies looked at PBDE maternal serum levels measured at 16 weeks of gestation and compared it to IQ and behavioural scores of the children at 5 years of age. The researchers concluded that PBDE exposure while in the womb negatively impacted the child’s IQ and behaviour scores later in life. They also suggested that these flame retardants may be developmental neurotoxins (37).
Of great concern is a study done by scientists at UC David MIND institute. The scientists found that even tiny amounts of PBDE damaged neural mitochondria. These are essentially the power plants of our brain. Damage done here literally reduces brain powder.
The researchers remarked: “We were surprised to find that you need only tiny concentrations of BDE–49 to do significant damage,”. “Similarly low concentrations of BDE–47 routinely are found in children’s blood samples.”
These findings are supported by neurotoxicity studies done in animals. The conclusion - levels of PBDE that cause neurotoxicity in animals are similar to that found in highly exposed infants and toddlers today (38).
Finally, the worst news of all, modern FR’s are linked to cancer. A big reason why PCB’s and even the more recent PBDE flame retardants were banned was due to their extreme toxicity impact on the body. A recent 2017 paper concluded that DE–71 (of the PBDE family) ‘may facilitate tumor development’.
And new studies suggest that the unbanned TDCPP may be carcinogenic. Rodents exposed to TDCPP showed increase tumor formation in the brain and liver (39). The same chemical has been shown to alter DNA (40). And in California, TDCPP was recently listed as a carcinogen.
Another form of FR is TCEP, this has been demonstrated to harm sperm in animal studies, even across multiple generations (41).
Cancer is a slow forming disease, and some of these chemicals have not been around long enough yet to draw solid conclusions. But the evidence is clear, these toxins do impact our health. Most worryingly is their impact on infant health. Toddlers have the highest FR levels per body weight for any age group, and knowing that these chemicals cross the placenta, these findings should be taken seriously not only by expecting parents, but society as a whole.
Knowing how dangerous these chemical flame retardants are to our health, you are probably wondering if there is a way to minimise fire risk without the negative health side effects?
Thankfully there are. I outlined some of the major ‘healthier’ flame retardants on the market below:
This is a chemically inert non toxic natural flame retardant. It is used in fabric or as a plastic layer. However, there is a some potential issue as a respiratory irritant.
Another natural flame retardant and when densely packed or woven it meets a lot of flame retardant standards. This is a popular choice for parents looking for a healthy mattress for their children. The downside is that wool can cause skin irritation for some people. Also, some companies add chemicals to the wool to increase flame resistance.
Also known as borate powder. This has been used for centuries as a way to protect against fire. The 1800’s borate powder was used in theatres to reduce the flammability of textiles. The downside is that it can cause eye and respiratory irritation.
Now that you are aware of how dangerous these chemicals are to our health, you’re probably keen to reduce your exposure. Below I have listed all the essential things you need to do. For a simple to use one page guide on practical ways to minimise your FR toxic load (plus a list of all the common Flame Retardant names you want to avoid) be sure to download my guide HERE.
Ok, so maybe that's not very practical!
Sweat - sweating is a proven way to reduce flame retardant levels in the body (42). Go find an Infrared Sauna and book in regular sweat sessions!
Minimise Tech Use - Studies found individuals who used personal computers, gadgets, TVs and appliances had the highest levels of FR contamination in this 2016 study (43).
Avoid biting your nails - Hand to mouth is a common pathway for FR ingestion.
Wash your hands before eating - Toddlers have the highest rates of FR contamination and researchers believe a big reason for this is their behaviour of constantly putting their fingers in their mouth. This isn’t a problem for adults, but residues can make their way onto food we consume.
Frequent Vacuuming - dust inhalation comprised of 82% of FR accumulation in a US study. Vacuuming with a quality HEPA vacuum cleaner can help reduce dust inhalation.
Use HEPA air filters - A quality air filter can help reduce FR levels in indoor environments.
Avoid dust exposure - Especially dust that has been exposed to heated plastic (i.e., from tv sets, or in the interior of cars)
Avoid working in factories - or recycling centres or any industrial centres.
Upgrade your furniture and mattresses to organic - Many old mattresses and furniture were manufactured using now banned FR. Upgrade these to safer modern items, preferably void of any man-made flame retardants (be sure to read my article - How To Choose A Toxin Free Healthy Mattress or download my Healthy Mattress Buyers Guide HERE for more on this.)
Eat organic - Studies have found that FR toxins make their way into the fat of animals. Likewise it gets into our waterways and soil. Ensure you eat a clean organic diet that will be lower in nasty toxins.
Avoid Farmed Fish - Farmed fish (particularly salmon) has high levels of PBDEs. Go with wild salmon instead.
Optimise Health - If you can’t reduce your exposure, then make sure you’re doing everything possible to improve your health so your body can deal with these toxins. For a free resource guide on how ways to do this, be sure to click here to view this page.
If you are looking for a handy one page reminder to print out and leave on your fridge, be sure to download my guide here. In this guide I also list the names of common flame retardants - great for when you are buying new furniture or toys.
It’s hard to avoid all pollutants, toxins, chemicals and pesticides in the world. Even things like nnEMF and smart meters are now ever present in our lives. Sometimes learning about the dangers of these things leaves you in a state of doom and gloom. That is not my intention with this article.
I am standing here on a plastic desk with two computer screens covered in dust in front of me, using a plastic mouse and a plastic keyboard. Even while typing this article I went to the fridge and ate a carrot from my hands… without washing them. In all honestly after researching this article I am going to start making more changes, like washing my hands more frequently and dusting (or maybe hiring a cleaner!) as I do want to be as healthy as can be, especially as I want to start a family in the near future.
But my point is simple - please don’t read this article and get all down. Maybe you brought a new mattress when you were pregnant. Or your toddler is playing with a plastic toy on a carpet floor while chewing on the TV remote. Don’t stress. Don’t beat yourself up. Instead, take on board what you have now learnt and when the opportunity comes, make a choice that is beneficial for your health.
For instance, if you go mattress shopping for your children you will now know what to look for (and what to avoid). If you are building a new home you may avoid the foam carpet padding. If you fail at dusting you may start dusting. If you need a new vacuum cleaner, get one with a good HEPA filter.
Small changes. All these small tweaks add up. Don’t feel like you have to go out and overhaul your life after reading an article like this.
This is how I have built my health coaching program. Small changes. But at the same time, if you are passionate about health then don’t put your head back into the sand and think ‘ignorance is bliss’.
If you read this article in full you will understand that governments and manufactures do not have our health in their best interest. Sure they have banned various flame retardants, but that was after decades of use. And research is showing the FR’s used today have the same problems as past chemicals. It’s up to you to make changes to benefit your health.
Research topics and make informed decisions. The reason I wrote this article is because I am looking at buying a new mattress. Sure I could just take the salesman word and buy the mattress that he told me was ‘healthy’, but as I will be spending 8 hours a night on this thing for many years, I wanted to do my own research. In turn I learnt about flame retardants… (Find out what mattresses I recommend HERE)
Unless you want to run away and live in the bush, it is near impossible to avoid all these modern toxins. However, it is possible to minimise your exposure. Follow the tips I outlined above, or download my reference chart here, and you’ll immediately improve your health. Improvements, that’s what we are after!
Thanks again for taking the time to read this post. I hope you learn something and I hope you and your families health benefit as a result. If you did read this far, please leave me a comment saying so, I read them all and love hearing from readers!
Also, if you are looking for some guidance on avoiding flame retardant exposure in your mattresses, please see my 6000 word report on How To Choose A Toxin Free Healthy Mattress here.
This blog post was written by Alex Fergus. Alex is an ISSN Sports Nutrition Specialist, Fitness Professional and certified Superhuman Coach who continues to expand his knowledge base and help people across the world with their health and wellness. Alex is recognized as the National Record Holder in Powerlifting and Indoor Rowing and has earned the title of the Australian National Natural Bodybuilding Champion. Having worked as a health coach and personal trainer for over a decade, Alex now researches all things health and wellness and shares his findings on this blog. Learn more about Alex's Credentials HERE.
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