All furniture and bedding has – by law – to be protected with flame retardants and for good reason; we have all heard tragic stories of deaths due to bedclothes or sofa covers catching light from a forgotten candle, dropped cigarette or stray spark from a fire.
But there is widespread concern as to the damage that some of the chemicals commonly used as flame retardants can do, both to our health and the environment.
Brominated Flame Retardants
Brominated flame retardants – or BFR’s are a group of chemicals which have been added to furniture since the 1970’s to reduce the risk of fire. This specific set of chemicals includes:
- Polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs)
- Hexabromocyclododecanes (HBCDs)
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) – including Deca, Penta and Octa BDEs
- Tetrabromobisphenos A (TBBP-A)
It is PBDEs which are the cause of most concern at the moment and upon which this article will concentrate.
PBDE is a known hormone-disrupting chemical which can build up in the body, stored particularly in the fatty tissues. Beluga whales have been shown to be harbouring PBDEs with massive increases in the last few years.
One study carried out found that the level of PBDEs in children’s blood was three times greater than the level found in that of their mother’s. One possible theory is that children will tend to bounce and be more active on furniture, thus dislodging contaminated dust which is then either directly ingested or finds its way into the body through children’s fingers.
Contaminated Breast Milk
PBDE’s have also been showing up in breast milk. Studies are ongoing to determine the extent of any adverse effect for the child, but there are concerns over the possibility of occurrences of thyroid disease and neurological problems.
One Swedish study reported a 60-fold increase in levels over 25 years (between 1972 and 1997); while another concluded it had increased by 200 times in women in North America. Researchers are now showing similar results in other countries such as Japan, Israel, and Spain.
Household Cats And Mice
Cats have also been found to have very high levels of PBDEs in their blood and fatty tissues, and this has been linked to the rise in thyroid problems amongst household cats.
Studies carried out on mice in Sweden have found the effects of the chemical in the nervous system to be pronounced, with abnormal behaviour emerging when mice were exposed to the now banned, penta-PBDE compounds during the first 10 days of life no matter how low the dose. The effects also increased with age.
However, harmful effects are not only limited to ‘penta’, and other experiments using rats have shown worrying hormonal changes.
Contaminated Water And Marine Life
One group of animals which seems particularly affected by the chemicals used for flame retardant furniture, is that of fish. Whether fish are contaminated via the water or another method is not certain, but PBDE’s are commonly found in water and in 1999 studies showed that downstream of a chemical plant in County Durham and where PBDEs are manufactured, the River Tees in the UK has been found to be highly contaminated.
But it doesn’t stop there, for PBDEs have been found in less expected places – including relatively ‘clean’ environments such as in Scottish lochs and mountain lakes.
Birds And Wildlife
Deca-BDE has shown up in the eggs of peregrine falcons and other British birds – a persistent version of the chemical which has proven to alter brain function in mice. It has also been found at alarming levels in human blood.
DeBDethane, which was introduced as an alternative to ‘deca’ has also now been found to be contaminating the air, as well as sewage sludge.
Moves To Change
The UK was tasked by the EU with assessing the risks of fire retardant chemicals and Defra delivered a risk reduction strategy report in the year 2000.
A ban was advised for certain of the more lethal bromide mixes and particularly that of ‘penta’ (penta-BDE) which has been widely used in polyurethane foam for furniture and ‘octa’ (octa-BDE) and they are now banned in Europe (although millions of homes will still contain furniture which could be affected with the chemicals).
But with PBCE’s now finding their way into our food chain, perhaps it is time to extend the ban further particularly with relation to deca-bromodiphenyl (‘deca’), a flame retardant found in increasing levels in the environment, because it can degrade into ‘penta’ and ‘octa’ versions of the molecule.
If you are worried, keep dust to a minimum, and ensure your home is well ventilated.