Flame Retardants Might Be Causing More Harm Than Good

Flame Retardants

New research suggests that the long-term addition of flame retardants to thousands of consumer products in the United States may increase the risk of dying from cancer. The study discovered that individuals with the highest blood levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, had a roughly 300% higher risk of dying from cancer than those with the lowest levels.

The authors noted that, to their knowledge, this is the first study to look at the relationship between PBDE exposure and the risk of cause-specific mortality in the US adult population as a whole. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey is a long-term federal study on the health of US residents. Between 2003 and 2004, 1,100 participants in the survey had their blood levels of these chemical components examined.

A study published in the journal JAMA Network Open on Monday details how the researchers linked the levels of PBDE with death certificates 15–17 years later. Although the study discovered a strong correlation between PBDEs and cancer-related fatalities overall, the data at hand did not allow researchers to identify certain cancer types.

Previous studies found a connection between various types of flame retardants and the risk of cancer, but the discovery of a connection to cancer mortality furthers scientific understanding, according to Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a pediatrics and population health professor at NYU Langone Health in New York City. He did not participate in the research.

According to Trasande, a researcher who examines the effects of plastics, flame retardants, and other chemicals on children, “the new study links PBDEs to deaths from cancer, building a case for the association between flame retardants and cancer mortality being real.” “We can’t get these chemicals out of the environment overnight, so this impact will continue because they have long half-lives and stay in the human body for years,” he stated.

The American Chemistry Council is an alliance of manufacturers and distributors of flame retardants. An email from a representative of the council to CNN reads as follows. Although we haven’t had a chance to read the report on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in its entirety, we have always spoken in favor of using reliable scientific evidence and research.

“The goal of the North American Flame Retardant Alliance (NAFRA) and its member companies is to responsibly produce, use, and manage chemicals and chemical products in a way that safeguards the environment and public health. This includes flame retardant chemicals, which are made to stop or slow the spread of fires, protecting people, property, and valuables.

Risks To Health From Flame Retardants And PBDEs

Endocrine disruptors, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are substances that mess with the body’s hormone balance. Studies have connected the chemical components to poor blood sugar metabolism, obesity, thyroid illness, some malignancies, problems with reproduction, and neurodevelopmental difficulties.

Exposure to PDBEs is not new; according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testing has revealed that the majority of Americans had three to ten times the amount of these endocrine disruptors in their blood than persons in European countries. Previous studies have revealed that developing fetuses can also receive flame retardant chemicals through the placenta and newborns can receive them through breast milk.

According to an August 2020 study, PBDEs are currently the leading cause of intellectual disability in children, accounting for a total loss of 162 million IQ points and more than 738,000 cases of intellectual disability.

How Do PBDEs Come Into Your Life?

Manufacturers employ flame retardants in carpet padding, foam-padded yoga mats, and padded baby things, as well as in car upholstery, infant car seats, office chairs, loveseats, sofas, loveseats, and some toys. Coating kitchen appliances and electronics with chemicals can also lower the risk of a fire.

2004 saw the voluntary removal of two PBDE kinds from the US market. Regulating decabromodiphenyl ether, or DecaBDE, a flame retardant related to cancer that is used in computers, televisions, textiles, building and construction materials, and imported goods like automotive parts, was not done by the US Environmental Protection Agency until January 2021.

According to Trasande, the industry has occasionally swapped out these chemicals for more modern flame retardants based on phosphorus, but scientists are now worried that these substances might also be connected to cancer.

The foam in antique couches and carpet padding still contains several of the older chemicals, including PBDE. However, pollution is a major source of exposure since flame retardants have leached from landfills over decades to contaminate the air, soil, groundwater, rivers, and streams.

According to the CDC, exposure to these chemicals can happen through tainted consumer goods and household dust, as well as through residues in food, particularly high-fat foods like fatty fish.

This is due to the fact that PBDEs accumulate in animal fat once they are present in the environment. The concentration of the toxins rises as one animal devours another. Humans have some of the highest PBDE concentrations since they are the apex predators in the food chain.

“We live in an environment where we use products that have these chemicals added many years ago, so these flame retardants will stay around and are detectable in all of us in the US,” Trasande stated. Those who work in enclosed areas where items made, repaired, or recycled that contain PBDEs may be among the most at risk, according to the CDC.

We would like to point out that NAFRA members have backed the phase-out of PBDEs and do not create them. A representative for the American Chemistry Council responded to the email, saying, “PBDEs are regulated worldwide and have significantly decreased in the environment.”

According to a March study, although fish PBDE levels had decreased by 75% over the previous 20 years, this fall has stalled, and researchers still discovered the chemicals in 93% of all fish studied, with some sites showing an increase. Actually, US fish average levels are hundreds of times higher than environmental quality requirements established by the European Parliament.

Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, a nonprofit organization that advocates for environmental and public health, stated that scientists found higher levels of PBDEs in babies in a June 2017 study, nearly ten years after the chemicals were phased out in 2004.

She stated in an email that “some infants showed higher levels of PBDEs than their mothers, illustrating how legacy chemical exposures don’t go away immediately after phase-outs or bans are enacted.”

How To Keep Your Family Safe

The EWG notes that even with the removal of many of these chemicals, some manufacturers may continue to add flame retardants to padded products including nursing pillows, changing table pads, crib mattresses, and nap and workout mats. As such, make sure to read the flammability warnings for these items. The association notes in a tip sheet that “it is difficult to buy a flame retardant-free car seat and impossible to avoid these chemicals in automobile seating.”

Keep any existing furniture cushions, foam mattress pads, and infant car seats fully covered with flame-retardant fabric to prevent the chemicals from escaping more quickly. Tears in the foam also contribute to this.

Make sure to use flame-retardant-free foam to replace the old padding when reupholstering vintage couches or chairs. Similarly, EWG advised wearing a mask and taking extra care to clean up after handling the chemically treated scrap foam that is used as padding beneath carpets. Vacuum and wet mop frequently, particularly if a child resides in the house. Utilize a vacuum that has a high-efficiency HEPA filter to capture dust and other contaminants.