Fire retardants: the new asbestos

9 05 2013

My toxic couch:

I’d like to nominate flame retardant chemicals used in our furniture, fabrics and baby products – as well as a host of other products – as being in the running for the “new asbestos”. These chemicals (halogenated flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are commonly known as PBDE’s. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune, responding to the series published by that paper about flame retardants called “Playing with Fire” (click here to read the series), said the use of flame retardants is a public health debacle.

According to “Playing with Fire”, the average American baby is born with “10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded level of flame retardants among infants in the world.” Many of these chemicals accumulate within the blood, fat, and even breast milk, causing a number of unknown health risks. One common ingredient in flame retardants, BDE-49, has recently been found to damage neural mitochondria, leading to brain damage. The same study also found evidence of autism effects being amplified by environmental factors.(1) The MIND Institute at UC Davis, responsible for the study, summarized it by saying the “chemical, quite literally, reduces brain power,” noting that the findings “bolster the argument that genetics and environment can combine to increase the risk of autism and other neurological disorders.”

These chemicals accumulate in human tissues – and they last a really long time . In addition, we’re being constantly re-exposed because they’re ubiquitous in the environment – they’re used for foam in cushions, but also in such things as baby strollers, carpeting, mattresses and electronics. These chemicals are also found in mother’s milk in every country of the world and in animals – from polar bears in the Arctic to hummingbirds in the Amazon.

In the United States, California has required flame retardants on everything from children’s pajamas to furniture. This standard is called Technical Bulletin 117, or TB 117, which was passed in 1975 and requires that polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without catching fire. Because California is such a large market, and also because there is no other state or federal standard, many manufacturers comply with the California rule, usually by adding flame retardants with the foam.

The startling and disturbing result of a published study in Environmental Health Perspectives is that Latino children born in California have levels of PBDE in their blood seven times higher than do children who were born and raised in Mexico.[2] In general, residents of California have higher rates of PBDE in their blood than do people in other parts of the United States – and people in the United States have levels of PBDE higher than anyone else in the world.

A home can contain a pound or more of fire retardants. These chemicals are similar in structure and action to substances such as PCBs and DDT that are widely banned. They leak out from furniture, settle in dust and are taken in by toddlers when they put their hands into their mouths. A paper published in Environmental Science & Technology [3] also finds high fire retardant levels in pet dogs. Cats, because they lick their fur, have the highest levels of all.

One troubling example is chlorinated Tris, a flame retardant that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s largely based on research done by Dr. Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist, after it was found to mutate DNA and identified as a probable human carcinogen. In the journal Environmental Science and Technology, new research published in 2011 shows that chlorinated Tris was found in more than a third of the foam samples tested – products such as nursing pillows, highchairs, car seats and changing pads.[4] Tris is now being used again at high levels in furniture being sold in California to meet the California standard.

The benefits of adding flame retardants have not been proved. Since the 1980s, retardants have been added to California furniture, yet from 1980 to 2004, fire deaths in states without such a standard declined at a similar rate as they did in California. And during a fire when the retardants burn, they increase the toxicity of the fire, producing dioxins, as well as additional carbon monoxide, soot and smoke, which are the major causes of fire deaths.

So why are we rolling the dice and exposing our children to substances with the potential to cause serious health problems when there is no proven fire safety benefit?

Under current law, it is difficult for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ban or restrict chemicals – current federal oversight of chemicals is so weak that manufacturers are not required to label products with flame retardants nor are they required to list what chemicals are used.[5]. Even now, the agency has yet to ban asbestos!

And when a ban does go into effect, it’s usually severely restricted: for example, in the USA, BPA is now banned in baby bottles – but only in baby bottles. Many products tout the fact that they’re “BPA free” but that’s because the chemical has hit a nerve with consumers, who recognize that BPA isn’t a good thing to have in plastic water bottles, for example, so the manufacturers voluntarily restrict its use. Another example is lead, which has been banned in the USA in some products– paint and gasoline come quickly to mind – but is still used in others, such as plastics, printing, and dyes. New legislation restricts the amount of lead that can be present in products designed for children to 100 ppm, despite the fact that research shows that any detectable amount of lead can be harmful to kids.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been working on a federal flammability standard for upholstered furniture for 16 years. The current proposal would allow manufacturers to meet the flammability standard without fire retardants. An agency spokesman said that “additional research looking into consumer exposure and the impact of chemical alternatives is needed.”

California State Sen. Mark Leno sponsored California Senate Bill 147, the Consumer Choice Fire Protection Act, introduced in February, 2011. The bill called for an alternative furniture flammability standard that would give consumers the choice to purchase furniture that is fire-safe and nontoxic.

However, aggressive lobbying in the form of multimillion-dollar campaigns from “Citizens for Fire Safety” and other front groups funded by three bromine producers – Albemarle, Chemtura and Israeli Chemicals Ltd. – resulted in a defeat of this bill in March, 2011. Their main argument was that new flame retardants – similar in structure and properties to the old ones and lacking any health information – were safe. This despite opposition which included 30 eloquent firefighters, scientists, physicians and health officers representing thousands of Californians. But new life is again being breathed into this issue, and California has introduced a new TB117-2013 to address the problem by changing the testing parameters so as not to need flame retardants.

But stay tuned – the chemical industry has a lot at stake and they won’t go down without a fight.

Although we stopped most uses of asbestos decades ago, workers and others inadvertently exposed continue to die from its long-term effects. Let’s not add more chemicals to this sad list.

(1) Napoli E, Hung C, Wong S, Giulivi C., “Toxicity of the flame-retardant BDE-49 on brain mitochondria and neuronal progenitor striatal cells enhanced by a PTEN-deficient background” Toxicol Sci. 2013 Mar;132(1):196-210.
[2] Eskenazi, B., et al., “A Comparison of PBDE Serum Concentrations in Mexican and Mexican-American
Children Living in California”,
[3] Vernier, Marta and Hites, Ronald; “Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in their Food”, Environmental Science and Technology, 2011, 45 (10), pp4602-4608.
[4] Martin, Andrew, “Chemical Suspected in Cancer is in Baby products”, The New York Times, May 17, 2011.
[5] Ibid.

Real life examples of the effects of our textile choices

10 02 2012

We’ve been told that using greener, healthier products of all kinds is a key way to avoid sickness and even serious diseases. Small children, being particularly vulnerable, undoubtedly need their parent’s help in this respect, so parents are urged to protect their children from exposure to the huge amount of additives, colors, toxins and chemicals which find their way into our food, products and houses.

But come on, seriously?  We’re all busy people and who has the time  – let alone the money – to make sure every product is safe.

That’s a good argument and one I work hard to dispute.  Which is why I like to find real life examples of what our textile choices (since this is a blog about fabrics) are really doing to us in the real world.

The first example you may have read about:  According to a study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association,  the more exposure children have to chemicals called perfluorinated compounds, the less likely they are to have a good immune response to vaccinations (click here to read the study).  “Routine childhood immunizations are a mainstay of modern disease prevention. The negative impact on childhood vaccinations from PFCs should be viewed as a potential threat to public health,” said Dr. Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health and the report’s lead author.

Perfluorinated compounds (PFC’s) have been used for decades  in many products, including stain resistant fabrics. In our blog post two years ago about PFC’s, we said: The multi-billion dollar “perfluorocarbon” (PFC) industry has emerged as a regulatory priority for scientists and officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because of  a flood of disturbing scientific findings which have been  published  since the late 1990s.  These findings have elevated PFCs to the rogues gallery of highly toxic, extraordinarily persistent chemicals that pervasively contaminate human blood and wildlife the world over. Government scientists are especially concerned because unlike any other toxic chemicals, the most pervasive and toxic members of the PFC family never degrade in the environment. (Click here to read that blog post about these chemicals in fabrics.)

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFC’s:

  • Are very persistent in the environment.
  • Are found at very low levels both in the environment and in the blood of the U.S. population.
  • Remain in people for a very long time.
  • Cause developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals.

Studies in animals have shown that PFCs can weaken their immune systems,  but the effects in people have been poorly documented.  Dr.  Grandjean wanted to know if the same weakened immune system response seen in animals was happening in children.   So he led a team that studied nearly 600 kids in the remote  Faroe Islands, which lie about halfway between Scotland and Iceland.

The Faroese have levels of PFCs similar to those of U.S. residents. Grandjean figured if the chemicals were having an effect, it would show up in the way kids’ bodies responded to vaccinations.

Normally, a vaccine causes the production of lots of antibodies to a specific germ. But Grandjean says the response to tetanus and diphtheria vaccines was much weaker in 5-year-olds whose blood contained relatively high levels of PFCs.  “We were surprised by the steep negative associations, which suggest that PFCs may be more toxic to the immune system than current dioxin exposures,” said Grandjean. (1)

And how do fabrics contribue to exposure to PFC’s?  There are many finishes on the market that claim to provide soil and stain repellants for fabrics – all of which contain some form of PFC’s.  The only difference among them are they way they use the chemistry to achieve their results.   Among the more well known are:

  • Scotchguard
  • GoreTex
  • Teflon
  • Zepel
  • NanoTex
  • GreenShield
  • Crypton Green

So think about this the next time you’re about to buy children’s clothing that is stain resistant – or really any fabric in your house that claims stain resistance, since the fabric will expose you and your children to PFC’s.

This is not a frivolous concern, because the levels of PFC’s globally are not going down – and in fact there are places (such as China) where the PFC level is going up.  And as there is not a “no peeing” part of the pool, the exposure problem deserves international attention.

The second example involves yet another chemical which is used in textile processing which I had not known about.  But because the textile industry has one of the longest and most complicated industrial chains in the manufacturing industry that shouldn’t surprise me.

It seems that Alaska Airlines flight attendants were given new uniforms early last year.  Shortly after the attendants put on these new uniforms, many reported “dermal symptoms” (e.g., hives, rash, blisters, skin irritation), while some also referenced respiratory symptoms and eye irritation; some have more recently been diagnosed with abnormal thyroid function. The symptoms apparently occurred only while wearing the new uniforms.  (To read the report filed with the Consumer Product Safety Commission by the Association of Flight Attendants, click here. )

And now there is a lot of name calling between the uniform manufacturers and the union representing the flight attendants, but a few things are certain:

  1. Some unknown percent of the fabric used to make the uniforms was “contaminated” with TBP, tributylphosphate, as reported by the manufacturer  – but since not all the fabric was tested, it is unknown the final percentage of contaminated fabric.  Later testing of individual uniforms also indicated the presence of TBP, according to the report filed by the Association of Flight Attendants.
  2. Alaska Airlines and the manufacturer tells the flight attendants that these chemicals can be removed by washing or dry cleaning.

So.  But first, what is this substance?

Tributylphosphate – or TBP – is used in the production of synthetic resins and as a flame-retarding plasticizer.  It is also used as a primary plasticizer in the manufacture of plastics and as a pasting agent for pigment pastes used in printing.  Because it is a strong wetting agent, it is used often in the textile industry.

Many fabrics have resins applied as a functional finish – from crease and stain resistance to antibacterial resistance.   Often these resins have that other notorious skin sensitizer as a component – formaldehyde.   These finishes are designed to bind with the fabric and not wash or wear out – after all, how happy would you be with your new crease resistant pants if they wrinkled after one or two washes?  Or even 20?

In addition to being a known skin irritant (click here to see the MSDS with a warning that it causes eye and skin irritation), TBP also causes bladder cancer in rats. (2)

So we have a chemical which is often used in the textile industry in a number of different ways, which is known to cause skin and eye irritation in humans – and flight attendants are complaining of skin irritation after wearing uniforms that have been tested and are found to contain TBP (3).

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck:  seems a pretty good hypothesis that something in the fabric is causing the distress – and since tests found both TBP as well as formaldehyde in the fabrics, it seems logical to conclude that one or both might be the culprit.    I would also argue that wearing this fabric puts these flight attendants at risk of cancer – not something that they will get tomorrow, like the skin irritation – more like 20 years from now.

The flight attendants are between a rock and a hard place, because they must wear these uniforms in order to perform their jobs.  But what about the rest of us?  Why are we still supporting the production of fabrics which contain these chemicals which are doing us harm?  Why are we not acting to protect our children, these children who are suffering from what is being called an epidemic of chronic illness?(4) .  Asthma, autism, ADHD, allergies, juvenile diabetes, celiac disease, obesity and many other illness are growing at astounding rates – and even “healthy” children are showing signs of chronic immunological impairment and unhealthy physiological imbalances.  And we do not know why – though every scholar explaining the problem refers at some point to the chemical toxicity surrounding us.

I’m just mystified by the reasoning behind our choices.  I know a woman who is very well off (thereby negating the argument that cost might be a factor) who just had a baby – and though the products  that are both easily found and discussed in the media (like a cute, safe crib) were vetted for safety, harder-to-find products were just ignored.  “Cute” triumphed.  So the child wears darling dresses and sleeps on sheets and with blankets that are made of conventionally produced fabric.   Her skin is slowly absorbing the many processing chemicals used to make the fabric.  But she doesn’t have skin sensitivity to any of the processing chemicals, so there is no immediate effect and no effort to change buying habits.   But even though they can’t be seen, the changes are going on slowly, at the cellular level.    And some of the changes won’t be apparent right away  –  mom may not even be alive when the effect of this exposure becomes known –  while others might, such as those in the long sad list of neurological problems.  But because there is no outcry in the media, and we’re not paying attention,  who would link behavior problems with the fabric choices being made by mom every day?

(1) response/



(4) Lambert, Beth, “A Compromised Generation“, Sentient Publications, 2010.