THEGREENGROK    The Chemical Marketplace

TDCPP: A Flame Retardant and the Air We Breathe

by Bill Chameides | June 2nd, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments


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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  1. Dr Mike Goode
    Jun 4, 2010

    It’s a shame that you print such one sided copy. Heather is indeed doing useful research which we have offered technical assistance with (and continue to do so). Your report is full of so many factual errors I don’t know where to begin but suffice it to say TDCP has been used safey for 40 years, it has not come and gone, yes there wa a small increase linked to Penta being withdrawn but actually its use has been rather steady. You, me, and just about everyone would know someone who’d died from fire if we did not have flame retardants (or we wouldn’t have the thousands of products that are made much more efficiently and thereofre more sustainably). There are many alternatives to TDCP, however it has been reviewed by regulatory agencies around the world and found to be safe (most notably the European Risk Assessment Process). If there is new data which cast doubt on the finding of its safety then we would consider working with other manufactreres withdraw it – which is why we support good science. You might be surprised to know it is illegal for companies to consipire together to withdraw a product in favor of more expensive ones unless there is an agency such as the EPA involved. You might also be surprised to know that it has been shown that the use of flame retardants not only saves lives but also reduces Persistant Organic Pollutants. I live in a University town (Purdue) with many friends in academia (I studied in Oxford), it is a shame to see such poor journalistic quality from a University source; small wonder that our society is becoming anti-science and increasingly anti-industry – and as a result much poorer in every respect – it is the most basic tenant of good journalism to seek both sides of the story!

    • Bill Chameides
      Jun 15, 2010

      Dr. Goode, Sorry you found the article to be “one-sided.” It was not my intention to be “anti-industry” and certainly not “anti-science.” Note that I specifically pointed out that flame retardants such as TDCPP (also known as TDCP) save lives; for example this quote: “they may save you or your child’s life by preventing a fire.” But I also point out that they also pose health risks, and I gather you take exception to this. Fair enough, but I take issue with your statement that TDCPP has been “found to be safe.” The Consumer Products Safety Commission concluded the following: “TDCP is considered a probable human carcinogen, based on sufficient evidence in animal studies. TDCP also induces non-cancer chronic health effects in animals. … Upholstered furniture manufactured with TDCP-treated foam in upholstered furniture might present a hazard to consumers, based on both cancer and non-cancer hazards.” The EPA classifies TDCPP as a moderate cancer hazard. And while you claim that the European Risk Assessment Process found the compound to be “safe,” I find their conclusions to be a bit less definitive. They conclude that TDCP is “toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment,” ( ) and is a Category 3 carcinogen, meaning that there is “limited evidence of a carcinogenic effect.” ( ) Does all that mean that TDCPP is definitely causing cancer in people? I don’t think so, but it also is a far cry from being “safe.” Given the data and the way the stuff persists, some folks might want to choose to avoid it. As I noted in my post, it’s not an easy choice since flame retardants save lives. But it’s a choice people should be able to make, and telling them that the compound is “safe” is in my opinion misleading.

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