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Update: Up to Our (Floppy) Ears in Flame Retardants?

by Bill Chameides | May 6th, 2011
posted by Wendy Graber (Researcher)

Permalink | 2 comments


You may be unaware of just how much we share with dogs, especially when it comes to persistent pollutants.

More than 80,000 chemicals are produced and used in United States. This is one of their stories.

Friends don’t let friends ingest (or for that matter, inhale) flame retardants, right? Wrong.

Flame retardants have appeared in TheGreenGrok’s Chemical Marketplace series in the past. They are in the category of  “don’t want to live without them, but would prefer to live without them.”

Why We Live With Them

Flame retardants (often polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs) are pretty ubiquitous in the marketplace these days. You’ll find them added to textiles, electronics, and furniture. And they serve a very useful purpose. Fires are a serious health problem in the U.S. According to the CDC, on average, an American dies in a fire every about once every 3 hours and 85% of those deaths occur in household fires.  Flame retardants added to household products and fabrics protect us from being a part of those statistics. And that’s a good thing.

The Chemical Marketplace
A series that looks at chemicals in everyday consumer products
     Alkylphenols and laundry and such »
     Aluminum and antiperspirants »
     BPAF »
     Dioxin and eggs »
     Flame retardants and pets
     Fluoride and water »
     Formaldehyde and no-iron shirts
     Insect repellents »
     Nanoparticles and food »
     PAH and seal coats: A no-brainer »
     PBDE and fire retardants »
     PFOA and popcorn »
     Piperonyl butoxide, a pesticde »
     Propoxur and bedbugs »
     Rotenone, a pesticide »
     Spray foams, sealants, diisocyanates »
     TDCPP and the air »
     Triclosan and toothpaste »
     Trihalomethanes (THM) and
showering »

Why We Would Prefer Not To

But there is a flip side to the wonders of the flame retardant story. Sure flame retardants may save lives, but they may also be taking lives. Once they get into our bodies they can do some pretty significant mischief: these include impaired liver, neurological, reproductive and thyroid functions, and they’ve been linked to depressed fertility in women and lower IQ and developmental test scores in children.

And get into our bodies they do. PDBEs are some of the most persistent pollutants in our environment, especially our homes.  Flame retardants added to furniture, electronics, and textiles can be dislodged from those items and find their way into the dust particles floating around our homes and then into our lungs as we innocently inhale that dust. Those same flame-retardant-laced dust particles can accumulate on our carpets and floors and be ingested by crawling toddlers who love to pick up stuff and put it into their mouths.  And let’s not forget it’s in our food too.

Is this a problem? Well, studies show significant concentrations of PDBEs in the bloodstreams of Americans – adults and children.  And the EPA and the chemical industry is sufficiently concerned that the race is on to find alternative flame retardants, that may or may not safer.

Dogs and Cats In the Act

Now new studies suggest that PDBE exposure in the household is not just a human problem. The stuff is finding its way into our best friends – our dogs. That’s right, in a paper published last week in Environmental Science and Technology, Marta Venier and Ronald Hites, from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, report that not only did brominated flame retardants show up in the blood streams of 18 dogs they tested, but that the concentrations were 5 – 10 times higher than that found in the average American. Why? It could be that they just spend more time laying around on carpet and cozy foam beds while chewing on toys and stuff from the floor, or it could be the PDBE-contaminated foods we feed our furry friends.

It’s appalling, I agree. This is clearly no way to treat man’s best friend. But there is a bright side if you are a canine. It turns out that an earlier 2007 study by Janice Dye of the EPA and colleagues (including the authors of the current study) found that the concentrations of brominated flame retardants in 23 test cats were 20 – 100 times larger than the average American’s; even larger than the levels in dogs.

Reading the Flame Retardant Tea Leaves

There is, as you know, an on-going debate among Americans between dog-people and cat-people about which is a better companion.  Who do we love more?  I guess one could interpret these data to mean that the dogs win out.  But perhaps a more accurate take is that both dogs and cats lose on this one.

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  1. Jim
    May 6, 2011

    Are there any data on the number of lives saved by PBDE’s? Do we actually know that they save lives? Does the few seconds gained from having PBDE’s in everything make much difference? If it does, then perhaps we should keep them while looking for an alternative. If it makes little difference, then perhaps we should just get rid of them. Most fires are caused by cigarettes or faulty extension cords or sub par wiring, often performed by unqualified persons. Perhaps we should tackle these causes rather than relying on flame retardants. But then we seem more focused as a society on mitigation after the fact rather than prevention, just like health care, just like autos. But that is a discussion for another time.

    • Pete
      May 10, 2011

      I would much rather deal with managing the risk of fire in my home directly, rather than trying to mask it with flame retardants. Unfortunately, I don’t have a choice – I have chemicals getting in my body and that of may family, chemicals that very likely have damaging effects that I can not know of or prevent. Instead, we should work to eliminate or minimize risks of fire in our homes. Unfortunately, as mentioned by the poster ‘Jim’, we as a society would often rather cover up a problem rather than deal with it.

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