Are the flame-retardants used in many products as a fire safety precaution dangerous to our health?

Are the flame-retardants used in many products as a fire safety precaution dangerous to our health? If so, what can I do to avoid contact with them?

—Katya, via e-mail

Flame-retardants are in widespread use in both the U.S. and Canada, primarily in carpet padding, foam cushions, polyester bedding and clothing, wallpaper, and the plastic housings for computers, faxes and other electronics. Most are made from variations of a chemical known as PBDE, which stands for polybrominated diphenyl ether.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology (WSDE), in laboratory studies some PBDEs have been shown to cause problems in rodent brain development. “Most of these problems stem from pre-natal exposure and exposure soon after birth. The health effects appear to be permanent,” says WSDE. They are quick to point out, though, that levels in humans have not (yet) reached the levels that cause problems in lab animals, but that scientists are concerned because the levels in humans keep rising.

PBDEs are “persistent” in that they don’t break down but remain active in our air, water, soil and food. WSDE says that PDBEs are building up in animals throughout the food chain, even turning up in orca whales in Puget Sound in Washington and in the bodies of polar bears in the Arctic.

PBDEs also stay in our bodies, accumulating in our fatty tissue. The U.S. is the world’s largest maker and user of PBDEs, and levels found in Americans are as much as 100 times higher than in Europe, where most PDBEs were banned in 2001. North American levels, say scientists, are doubling every two to five years. Primarily, human exposure has been through eating fish, though babies can be exposed by drinking mother’s milk. Children are also exposed when they wear polyester pajamas treated with flame retardant. Indeed, PDBE chemicals easily “off-gas” from the very products they are designed to make safe.

Consumers can take precautions and avoid products that contain PBDE. Among other cautions, the Healthy Children Project recommends buying clothing, bedding and furniture made from natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, which do not melt near heat and as such do not need to contain flame-retardants.

Another way to minimize exposure is to stick to a diet low in animal fat, since the chemicals accumulate in larger amounts in animals higher up the food chain. Joyce Newman of the Green Guide recommends vegetables, fruits and whole grains over meat and fish. When choosing meat and fish, she suggests cutting away as much of the fat as possible, and choosing leaner cuts overall.

As for consumer goods, WSDE says that industries need to re-think their product designs whereby highly flammable materials are avoided and ignitable materials are separated or shielded from heat sources. Some mattresses in use now in nursing homes and hospitals, for example, employ a “barrier layer” of durable material between surface fabric and interior foam and meet stringent fire safety standards without the use of chemicals. But until the Canadian and U.S. governments begin to take PBDE dangers more seriously, it will be up to individual consumers to look out for the health of their children and families.

CONTACTS: Washington State Department of Ecology’s “Toxic Flame Retardants: The Buzz on PBDEs,”; Healthy Children Project,; The Green Guide,