Synthetic chemicals added to consumer products to meet federal and state flammability standards are showing up in waterways, wildlife and even human breast milk.
Studies in laboratory animals and humans have linked the most scrutinized flame retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, to thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, advanced puberty and reduced fertility. Other flame retardants have been linked to cancer. At the same time, recent studies suggest that the chemicals may not effectively reduce the flammability of treated products.
The potential risks of flame retardants have been known for some time. In 1977, brominated tris was banned from use in children’s pajamas after researchers showed that it could damage DNA in animals. Two PBDEs, penta and octa, were pulled from the U.S. market in 2004. But another chemical that was removed from pajamas decades ago based on evidence that it could mutate DNA is still being used in furniture and some other baby products.