Researchers say that the fire retardant chemicals are toxic and only delay a fire be seconds but produce more smoke and most people die of smoke inhalation. (Millet Ab Fire Dept)

Toxic flame retardants replacing toxic flame retardants

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 replacement chemicals tend to be used in numerous products, such as electronics, appliances, upholstered furniture, car seats. But because there is no product labelling, it is hard to know where they are present, researchers say. Young children and the foetus of pregnant women are most at risk (Maria Sbytova-Shutterstock)

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.

Co-author Professor Miriam Diamond (PhD) of the University of Toronto “We were shocked that the concentration of this newer class of chemicals is so much higher than the now-banned class of chemicals, even when that previous set of chemicals were used at their peak,” (supplied)

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.

Additional information-sources

SciTechDaily: Oct 31/19: New flame retardants present serious risks.

PostMedia: S.Kirkey: Oct 22/18: New retardants as toxic as old ones, but found at even higher levels.

Toxic Free Future: -retardants explained

Eureka Alert: Oct 22/19: New flame retardants, old problems

Environmental Science & Technology Letters (ACS)

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