The Omnipresence of Flame Retardants

By Sonum Tharwani


Stop Toxic Flame Retardants


Why am I writing about flame retardants? I’m writing about them because they’re more common in your daily life than you might think. These chemicals can be found lurking in the fabric of your sleepwear, pillows, and couches as well as your electronics, such as televisions, computers, and phones.


The primary purpose of flame retardants is to delay the speed of burning to help meet state-enforced flammability standards for furniture, textiles, electronics, and building products, such as insulation. In other words, they are added to manufactured materials to serve as a protective layer that will inhibit or delay the spread of fire. Advocates of the use of flame retardants, such as the North American Flame Retardant Alliance, argue that they are critical for fire safety. Others wonder if some of these chemicals are causing more harm than good.  Early exposure to flame retardants have been shown to cause hormone disruptions, lower IQ, increase the risk of developmental problems, and several other health consequences. Additionally, it has been shown that flame retardants may not slow flames for the length of time necessary for residents to get away safely.


There are several policies enacted in various states to ban the use of flame retardants that have been shown to induce toxic effects. To learn more about the specific policies in place in your state, check out the following website. At the national level, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working to ensure that people are protected from any harmful effects of flame retardants. You can also visit the EPA’s website to read more about their strategy to better manage chemical safety regulations.


How am I exposed to these chemicals and how do they enter my body?

Household dust is the most common source of human exposure. Flame retardants break away from the fabric of household items as dust, disperse into the air, and settle to the floor. Therefore, when children pick up dust on their hands and transfer it into their mouths, they are at risk for exposure to these flame retardants.


How can you protect yourself and your family from these toxic chemicals and their detrimental effects on our health?

Flame TagBy reading this article, you have completed the first and most important step—educating yourself about flame retardants and their sources. Next, be sure to vacuum more frequently, dust with a wet towel, and wash your hands often, especially after handling dryer lint or house dust. If you are able, you can also purchase baby products and furniture that do not contain these chemicals. The tag pictured on the right suggests that this item was treated with flame retardants since it includes Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117). TB117, a flammability standard administered by California, eventually led to the widespread use of flame retardants in U.S furniture foam. If the phrase “TB 117-2013 compliant” appears on a tag, the item has not been treated with flame retardants.  TB117-2013 is the updated law that ensures better fire safety without the need of flame retardants in your furniture! Also, you can directly ask retailers to make sure the items are flame retardant free.  


Sonum Image[1]As a Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology major at Emory University, I am especially interested in contributing to research on flame retardants and continuing to pursue my passion for learning about neurobehavioral function. This compound goal led me to Duke to work on a toxicology project that utilizes zebrafish to investigate the long-term effects of developmental neurotoxic exposures. This research is conducted using a series of behavioral experiments that test the fishes’ neurobehavioral responses, including anxiety levels, social behavior, and other indicators of neurobehavioral function. For instance, we can test how fish react to various environmental changes, including a set light/dark cycle, new environments, interruptions such as tapping, the presence of other fish, or virtual predators, simulated on a computer screen. Hence, this summer, I’ve learned about zebrafish as a sensitive, economic, and reliable model for developmental neurobehavioral toxicity studies.


Flame retardants can be found nearly everywhere, yet many people are not aware of their presence. Some flame retardants have been shown to be effective while others are under investigation. Many have been associated with adverse health effects, especially in infants and young children. We are learning more about their advantages and disadvantages for our homes and our health. Thus, flame retardants are indeed omnipresent, so it’s essential to educate yourself about these chemicals and take the proper steps to reduce exposure!