Smoke and Mirrors: How Flame Retardants Impact Children’s Health

Flame retardants sound like a good thing, but more and more scientific evidence is finding they can be harmful—especially when it comes to kids.

Scientists have learned that some chemicals applied to furniture and household items to slow down the spread of fire aren’t saving lives and can actually make smoke more toxic. One type of flame retardants, PBDEs, are also linked to lower IQs in babies and disrupt thyroid function.

The risks to children’s health

The federal government has been phasing out some of the worst flame retardants, but they are still common in many homes—even in items that children interact with daily.

Car seats and cribs should provide safety for babies, not endanger their development and intelligence. But toxic flame retardants that continue to be used in upholstered furniture and baby products (including couches, mattresses, strollers, car seats, gliding chairs and even pajamas!) do just that, according to a study by Duke University researchers. The study adds to the body of evidence that infants and young children are at risk of developing severe health problems across their lifetime from cumulative exposures to endocrine-disrupting (or hormone-disrupting) chemicals like flame retardants.

Researchers detected concerning levels of harmful organophosphate flame retardant chemicals in the urine of 43 babies between the ages of two and 18 months in North Carolina. Two widely-used types of flame retardants that have been linked to various chronic disease conditions were found: tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl)phosphate (TDCIPP) and triphenyl phosphate (TPHP).

Especially worrisome: The concentrations of TDCIPP were found to be higher in some babies whose parents used more infant products and in babies who spent time in daycares, pointing to the fact that babies who are exposed to multiple sources are at higher risk. The study also confirmed previous findings that flame retardants are absorbed at much higher rates in children than in adults.

The study points to the much larger problem of widespread flame retardant use in consumer and household products. This includes products where you wouldn’t expect flame retardants, like nail polish. Recently, Environmental Defence published a blog about the use of toxic TPHP as plasticizer in popular nail polish. It’s absorbed through the nail and can even find its way into breast milk.

This is problematic: there is strong evidence that exposure to flame retardants while in the womb or after birth can hamper a child’s intelligence and lower the child’s IQ. And as recent research shows, hormone-mimicking chemicals may have a harmful effect at much lower levels of exposure than previously thought.

Flame retardant pollution in northern communities

Remote communities are especially at risk of being exposed to these toxic chemicals. Due to prevailing winds and currents, toxic chemicals like flame retardants, lead, and long-banned pesticides from the South make their way to Canada’s Arctic, where they accumulate in the ice and in the people that live there.

Many of the people living in Canada’s Arctic have traditional Inuit diets that include top predators like whales. As a result of this and other factors, they are often exposed to more pollution than the people living in the cities where the chemicals came from.  It is deeply upsetting to learn that pollution from cities thousands of kilometres away can harm babies in Canada’s North. 

What can parents do at home?

There are few simple steps that families can take to reduce their exposure to flame retardants:

  • Remove dust regularly with a damp cloth
  • Don’t eat while sitting on the couch: dust from the furniture can end up on hands and in food
  • Look for flame retardant free furniture and baby gear when purchasing new items

For more information about toxic flame retardants and other harmful substances, and how to avoid them, visit the Environmental Defence website for tips and guides. By steering clear of purchasing products with toxic chemicals, you can also do your part to reduce toxic pollution and contribute to efforts to protect human health and the environment for all.