Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Growing concerns over flame retardants

Upholstered furniture often contains
potentially harmful flame retardants.
Flame retardants are chemicals that can be found in a wide variety of consumer products, supposedly as a protective feature to make them less likely to catch fire.

However, growing levels in the environment and in humans, especially in North America, have led to a number of studies and warnings about the use of these chemicals, since some experts say they may hinder a child's growth and permanently damage their endocrine system.

It's not easy to avoid exposure in our everyday lives. Flame retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDEs) or brominated flame retardants have been found in child car seats, in household plastics, electrical and electronic equipment, upholstered furniture, non-clothing textiles and foam products.

Chemicals released slowly over a long time

In most cases, these flame retardants are added to the products rather than chemically bound to them, and they can be slowly and continuously released while they are manufactured, when they are used, or after they have been thrown away (Health Canada).

Many countries – notably in Europe - have moved towards banning flame retardants, but the levels remain relatively high in North America.

In one study involving children from California, the PBDE levels in 2- to 5-year-old California children was 10 to 1,000 fold higher than European children, 5 times higher than other U.S. children and 2 to 10 times higher than U.S. adults.

Organizations aim to raise awareness about toxic chemicals

In a bid to raise public awareness of harmful chemicals, several Los Angeles-area nonprofits organized the Toxies Awards event, where certain chemicals are named as standouts in the bad-for-you chemical category.

Incidentally, a flame retardant known as Halogenated Flame Retardant (HFR) won the People's Choice Award as Worst Chemical of the Year and also beat out other contenders in the Super Hot Mess category.

Used in furniture, electronics and building insulation, HFR can be found in nearly the entire U.S. population and is linked to a lower IQ, cancer and infertility.

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Update: An Aug. 10 public release says a University of California - San Francisco (UCSF)-led pilot study has found the highest levels ever reported among pregnant women worldwide of banned chemicals used in flame retardants, a likely result, they believe, of California's strict flammability regulations.

Tests indicate that these chemicals may cause liver, thyroid, and neurodevelopmental toxicity, according to the EPA.

Read the full release here.

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