For years medical scientists have been concerned about the addition of flame retardant chemicals into almost all consumer items, from fabrics in curtains, pyjamas, carpets, car seats and furniture, foam cushioning to televisions and other electronic devices.
The chemical called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) which leach out of the products through contact with skin or inhaling, were associated with decreased IQ in children exposed in utero through their mother’s contact with the chemicals, reduced fertility rates in couples and behavioural problems in children.
The PBDE’s were eventually phased out, but new research suggests the replacements organophosphate flame retardants, (OPFR) are at least as toxic and are often several times more present in air dust and water than the previous products.
The research was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters (ACS) under the title Organophosphate Ester Flame Retardants: Are They a Regrettable Substitution for Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers? (abstract here)
Prof Miriam Diamond of the University of Toronto says the OPFRs are now found worldwide from the deep ocean, to mountain tops “polluting areas where they were never used.
When manufacturers have to stop using a toxic chemical, they often replace it with a similar chemical with similar harms. In the case of flame retardants, we’re jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Marta Venier, an Associate Scientist at Indiana University
Diamond, notes that the chemicals are also in the foam commonly used as insulation adding it’s not clear there’s even a safety benefit. The industry claims fewer people die in fires because of the retardants, but others say that’s more likely due to fewer people smoking indoors, and increased use of smoke detectors.
Diamond also says the chemicals may actually worsen things because products will smoulder longer before burning creating much greater smoke, and most people in a fire situation die of smoke inhalation.
The authors say if a benefit can’t be proven, the chemicals should be banned, and other alternative materials used that are inherently flame resistant. They also say that the product labelling doesn’t include these chemicals so people can’t know in which products they’re present.