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Some flame retardant chemicals increasing in people's bodies

Feb 16, 2017

If you see the old label on the left, the piece of upholstered furniture likely contains flame retardants. If you see the new label on the right, it will tell you for sure whether it contains flame retardants.
Credit Mark Brush and Arlene Blum

Flame retardants are in a lot of products we use: furniture, carpet padding, electronics, car seats and baby products. Some types of flame retardants called PBDEs have been phased out because they were getting into people’s bodies and there were concerns about health effects.

Researchers are now finding that some of the replacement chemicals are also showing up in people.

Kate Hoffman is the lead author of a new study on this topic, and she's a visiting assistant professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.

She says levels of a metabolite, or breakdown product, of a chemical called chlorinated tris in people’s urine were 15 times higher in 2015 than they were in 2002.

“We don’t really know what the potential health effects of these exposures might be. We know that in animals, chlorinated tris can change hormone regulation and may be associated with increased cancer risk but it’s not clear right now whether or not that translates into any real change in human risk,” she says.

She says the chemical migrates from products in our homes and gets into dust and air, so we can get exposed from dust on our hands or by breathing it in. Hoffman says next, they'll study exposures to these compounds during pregnancy to see how they might affect children’s development.

In furniture and baby products, flame retardants are most often found in those products that contain polyurethane foam. But you can now buy furniture without flame retardants.

An updated flammability standard (Technical Bulletin 117-2013) in California allows furniture makers to meet a flammability test without using flame retardants in the foam. You can learn more here.