TDCPP: A Flame Retardant and the Air We Breathe

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

The air you breathe in your home may be dangerous to your health.

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 we breathe
     Triclosan and toothpaste »
     Trihalomethanes (THM) and
showering »

Manufacturers have been adding flame retardants to our clothes, furniture, and electronics for decades. Their intentions are undoubtedly good — decreasing the flammability of the stuff surrounding our lives to save lives. Even so, I suspect that most of us would prefer that the price of using flame retardants was not allowing toxic, mutagenic, carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting, and bio-accumulating chemicals to enter our bodies and our children’s bodies every time we take a breath. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Because flame retardants are typically added to products post-manufacture, they are not chemically bound to the material in the product. As a result, the retardants just don’t stay where they’re supposed to. They leach out of the clothes or the furniture or whatever, and enter the home environment, where they tend to accumulate in household dust — just waiting to be inhaled or ingested by anyone who happens to be around. And if that anyone happens to be one of your kids, that’s even more unfortunate because young children tend to experience their environment by crawling on floors and mouthing toys, and so on average they ingest about five times the amount of dust that adults do.

One solution to this problem would be to manufacture materials that are intrinsically flame retardant to reduce or even avoid chemical leaching. Instead, the chemical industry has searched for the holy grail of flame retardants — a chemical that retards fire but has no health effects. Unfortunately that search has been a sad story of solving one problem by creating another, and then doing it again and again. TDCPP is a case in point.

TDCPP: The Off-and-On-Again Flame Retardant

Back in the 1970s and early ‘80s, tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate or TDCPP, a chlorinated phosphate, held rein as a flame retardant of choice in children’s pajamas. This synthetic chemical rose to prominence because the previous flame retardant of choice — tris(2,3-dibromopropl) phosphate (tris-BP)  — was found to be carcinogenic and mutagenic and kids absorbed it from their treated jammies and so tris-BP was banned outright for this use in 1977.

But the TDCPP solution to the tris-BP problem proved to be short-lived — it too was found to be weakly mutagenic and so its use in p.j.’s was voluntarily phased out; however, it continued to be used in lots of other applications [pdf] including baby products such as toys and infant car seats. That’s right — phased out in one use because of concerns about children’s health but continued in other products for children.

Such uses of TDCPP continue today. A preliminary study by the Nicholas School’s Heather Stapleton and colleagues published last year in Environmental Science & Technology found TDCPP in a range of household items from baby strollers to pillows and mattress pads — all in the foam — as well as in household dust.

In fact its use in the United States appears to be growing — from one to 10 million pounds circa 1990 to between 10 and 50 million pounds between 1994 and 2006 (the most recent year with data available). This growth may reflect the search for alternatives to PBDEs, the flame retardant of choice since the ’70s that the United States is now voluntarily phasing out because of … you got it, health concerns. (Some states have banned some forms of PBDEs.)

And while the use of TDCPP in p.j.’s originally raised concern because it was “weakly” mutagenic, that opinion has changed considerably. Additional animal studies have shown that TDCPP is associated with cancer and developmental and neurological mutations (see here and here [pdf]). Other research [pdf] has shown that TDCPP bioaccumulates in humans. And another study of adult males released last year suggests there may be a link between exposure to TDCPP and impaired male fertility.

The Environmental Protection Agency considers TDCPP a moderate cancer hazard while the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission lists it as a probable human carcinogen [pdf]. EPA also considers TDCPP to be a moderate hazard for reproductive and developmental effects.

Deciding Between Risks With No Caveat Emptor Possible

The presence of flame retardants like TDCPP presents a real problem for consumers. On the one hand they may save you or your child’s life by preventing a fire; on the other, they may give you cancer or cause developmental problems in your kids. What’s the answer? It’s not obvious. In principle each of us should be able to weigh the various risks and choose to either buy or avoid products with various kinds of flame retardants.

Lots of consumer products have additives. In many cases, if you don’t want those additives, you read the labels and avoid the products that list the ingredients you don’t want. Unfortunately, you rarely have that ability when it comes to flame retardants.

Most chemical companies consider the composition of their flame retardants (which go by catchy names like Anitblaze 195 and Fyrol FR 2) to be proprietary. You are highly unlikely to find a label that says this or that product contains TDCPP. In fact you are unlikely to find a consumer product that says it contains flame retardants. I don’t see any kind of label on the Blackberry sitting next to me as I type, and the last time I checked it wasn’t on the teddy bear we keep for our grandchildren. Does that mean those products are free of flame retardants? I doubt it.

Y’all take a deep breath — and welcome to life in the chemical marketplace.

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