consumer products

Environment
10:35 am
Tue December 13, 2011

Flame retardant chemicals show up in air around Great Lakes region

Researchers at Indiana University have discovered two new kinds of flame retardant chemicals showing up in the air around the Great Lakes. These chemicals are added to polyurethane foam to help keep furniture and baby products from catching on fire.

They’re replacing other flame retardants called PBDEs that have been linked to neurological and developmental defects, and fertility and reproductive problems.

These newer chemicals are called brominated benzylates and brominated phthalates.

Ron Hites is an author of the study. His team found the chemicals in air samples from six sites around the Great Lakes... from Chicago to the remote Eagle Harbor in the Upper Peninsula. But he says it’s not clear yet what this might mean.

“We have very limited toxicology and virtually no information on ecological effects.”

Hites says one study suggests these chemicals can cause DNA damage in fish.

He says the concentrations of the chemicals in the atmosphere appear to be doubling every year or two in the Great Lakes region.

So how do you know if a product has flame retardants in it?

Experts say there's no way to know just by looking at a couch or car seat or baby changing pad whether it has flame retardant chemicals in it, but they say generally, if it has polyurethane foam and a label indicating it meets CA TB 117 (a California flammability standard that companies often meet by adding flame retardant chemicals), there's a very high probability the product contains flame retardants.

In a publication from the National Institutes of Health, Heather Stapleton, PhD says:

"I don't think we know much at all about the potential human health effects from exposure to these chemicals. What we do know is that infants are likely receiving more exposure to these chemicals than adults. Therefore, more research is warranted to determine if this exposure is leading to any adverse health effects."

The American Chemistry Council stands by the use of flame retardants.

But some scientists say these chemicals pose unnecessary risks.  The Green Science Policy Institute says many types of halogenated flame retardant chemicals are "persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic." The group has put out some guidelines for consumers.

You can learn more from The Environment Report's five part series on flame retardants.