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What are flame retardants?

Flame retardants are chemicals used in a wide variety of products, including foam, plastics and textiles. Flame retardants are added to products to meet flammability standards and are intended to slow the spread of a fire and provide additional escape time. Over time, concerns have increased about the potential negative effects of many flame retardants on human health and the environment.


Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals.

The greatest concern comes from a family of chemicals known as halogenated flame retardants, which use chlorine or bromine as a building block. Some of these chemicals, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have been phased out or restricted, but others are still in wide use.

Flame retardant report

In 2014, the Washington Legislature directed the Department of Ecology to review information on flame retardants, test products, and develop recommendations for bans or restrictions on the use of flame retardants in children's products and furniture. The Legislature requested specific information on tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) and antimony, as well as other flame retardants detected in children's products and furniture.

Ecology released its report in January, 2015. Ecology recommended a number of actions, including:
  • Restricting the use of 8 flame retardants commonly used in children's products and furniture.
  • Restricting the use of TBBPA and HBCD in textiles used in children's products and furniture.
  • Requiring that manufacturers report their use of all flame retardant chemicals used in consumer products.
The complete report is available at "Flame Retardants, A Report to the Legislature." A summary of the report is also available.

PBDE

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are flame retardant chemicals that were widely used in the U.S. and Canada. Studies showed that PBDEs are toxic and have been escaping from products and accumulating in people and the environment, including in human breast milk, blood and fat, household dust, and indoor air, fish, wildlife, birds, beef, dairy products and sediments.

Three main types of PBDEs were used in consumer products: Penta-BDE, Octa-BDE and Deca-BDE. Each of these types of PBDEs has different uses and different toxicity. Manufacturers of Penta-BDE and Octa-BDE agreed to voluntarily stop producing these two forms of PBDEs by the end of 2004.

In 2008, Washington passed a law (RCW 70.76) restricting the use of PBDEs in products sold in Washington state. This law helped to inform a national agreement in 2009 between manufacturers of Deca-BDE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop producing, importing, and selling Deca-BDE by the end of 2012. In 2014, Ecology published a report that indicates that manufacturers have moved away from using PBDEs in products available to Washington consumers. Recent studies have indicated that these bans and agreements have led to falling levels of PBDEs in the environment.

Washington's PBDE law resulted from the Chemical Action Plan for PBDEs, which was published in January 2006.

How do I prevent exposure to PBDEs?

PBDEs in indoor dust are one of the primary sources of exposure to flame retardants. Reduce your exposure to indoor dust by cleaning regularly. Use a damp cloth to dust indoor living and working areas. Avoid stirring the dust into the air. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Open windows and doors while you clean. Wash your hands after dusting and cleaning.

The Washington State Department of Health has additional information on how humans are exposed to PBDEs and how to reduce exposure. In addition, the Northwest Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at the University of Washington has produced a factsheet on PBDEs for pediatric health professionals.