Published August 17 2015
Flame retardants are compounds that are used in numerous products to inhibit the production of flames. They are included in products such as furniture, plastics and electronics. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been commonly used as flame retardants, although according to the Environmental Protection Agency they have been taken off of the market due to concerns about toxicity. However, there are still many products which include PBDEs, and there are also different types of flame retardants, which also have toxic effects.
There are different classifications of PBDEs, as this depends on the number of bromine atoms. The PBDEs with the lower number of bromine atoms are apparently more toxic than the ones with a higher number (1) . In addition to PBDEs, there are also organophosphorus flame retardants, such as Tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TDCPP), and studies show that these can be just as toxic as PBDEs.
PBDEs and Breast Milk
Numerous studies have showed high concentrations of PBDEs in the breast milk of nursing mothers. One study analyzed 47 milk samples from nursing mothers, and it found that the PDBE levels in the United States were 10-100 times greater than levels in Europe, and that their detection in breast milk raises concern for potential toxicity to nursing infants (2) . Another study involving 290 women showed an association between increasing PBDE concentrations in colostrum and a worse infant mental development (3) , although larger studies are needed to confirm this. Another study showed that increased PBDEs in breast milk was related to decreased birth outcome, particularly for birth weight and length, and chest circumference (4) .
Of course PBDEs aren’t the only toxin which is passed through breast milk. I’m a big advocate of breastfeeding, but those women reading this who are nursing might wonder if it is safe to breastfeed their children with all of the toxins being passed through the breast milk. This topic deserves an article of its own, but everything of course all comes down to risks vs. benefits, and I still think that in most cases the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks of the infant being exposed to toxins, although it’s possible that in the future I might be proven wrong. The main reason I brought up the studies about PDBEs and breast milk was to demonstrate that this is a big concern, and something that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Flame Retardants Are Endocrine Disruptors
Numerous studies on both humans and animals show evidence of PBDEs disrupting thyroid function. One study showed that inhibition of sulfotransferase activity was a potential mechanism for interfering with thyroid hormone regulation (5) . Another study in pregnant women actually showed that exposure to PBDEs is associated with lower TSH levels during pregnancy, which can affect both maternal health and fetal development (6) . Another study suggested that the increasing incidence of thyroid cancer might be due to an increased exposure to PBDEs (7) .
Organophosphate flame retardants also have been shown to be endocrine disruptors (8)  (9) . A recent study involving child car seats showed that while no PBDEs were detected in any of the seats, more than half of the polyurethane foam samples contained halogen-free organophosphates, while about a quarter of the samples contained chlorinated organophosphates (10) . So these toxins aren’t just included in couches and other furniture manufactured for adults, but they are also in products specifically designed for children.
Do Flame Retardants Really Offer Protection?
Of course everything comes down to risks vs. benefits, and so while there might be some risks of toxic exposure when coming into contact with products which contain flame retardants, if they are reducing the likelihood of the product catching on fire then that’s a good thing, right? Well, there is controversy regarding the effectiveness of flame retardants. In other words, furniture with flame retardants might not be less likely to catch on fire than furniture without flame retardants. An interesting journal article discussed whether the fire safety benefits involving halogenated flame retardants justified the risks (11) . The authors discussed how before implementing new flammability standards that they need to evaluate potential fire safety benefit versus the health and environmental impacts of these and other chemicals (11) .
So What Can Be Done About Flame Retardants?
Just as is the case with most other toxins, you’re probably not going to completely eliminate your exposure to flame retardants, and so the next best thing is to minimize your exposure to them while doing things to eliminate these toxins from your body. You especially want to be cautious when purchasing new furniture. I mentioned the statistics on child car seats earlier, and not too long ago, USA Today published an article  which discussed how more than half of all couches in the United States contain flame retardants. While 17% of the couches included pentaBDE, which is now banned, 41% had chlorinated tris. As a result, before purchasing a new couch or anything else with foam you might want to do some research, or purchase furniture that has polyester, cotton, or wool fillings, as these are unlikely to have flame retardants. I admit that this is something I didn’t pay much attention to when purchasing furniture in the past, but when you consider how much time many people spend on their couches or other pieces of furniture, it makes sense to be more aware of the negative health effect these toxins can have.
If you currently have furniture that has flame retardants and don’t plan on getting rid of them anytime soon, then investing in a HEPA air purification system probably would be a good idea. Using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA air filter also can help. I also learned from an article by Dr. Joseph Mercola  that Duke University offers free flame retardant testing  to test for the presence or absence of specific chemical flame retardants in one’s furniture. However, they only have the capacity to analyze 50 samples per month. Also, if you are removing old carpet you want to be cautious, as the padding may contain PBDEs. Of course doing other things to eliminate toxins from your body can help, including eating certain foods (i.e. garlic, broccoli, etc.) and taking supplements to increase glutathione levels, using sauna therapy, etc.
In summary, flame retardants are commonly included in products such as furniture, plastic, and electronics. Although they are used to inhibit the production of flames, their effectiveness is questionable, while their toxicity has been confirmed. And what’s scary is that many of these toxins are in products specifically designed for children. Numerous studies show evidence of PBDEs disrupting thyroid function. Although you won’t be able to completely eliminate your exposure to flame retardants, you of course want to do what you can to minimize your exposure to them (i.e. be careful when purchasing new furniture), and at the same time do things to aid your body in eliminating these toxins.