The Irony of Flame Retardants in Water: How They Get There
The Irony of Flame Retardants in Water: How They Get ThereNaturepedic mattresses don’t contain chemical flame retardants, compounds with suspected connections to human health and developmental problems. Jillian Pritchard Cooke, an interior designer specializing in healthier designs and founder of Wellness Within Your Walls, has connected flame retardants to poor indoor air quality. But what about water quality?
Scientists have been finding chemical flame retardants, particularly PBDEs, in rivers and waterways throughout the world. The question has been why? A recently released peer-review study published Sept. 17, 2014 by the journal Environmental Science & Technology offers some answers.
The report was co-authored by Erika Schreder, science director with the Washington Toxics Coalition, and Mark J. La Guardia, senior environmental research scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. The study examined 20 homes in the Vancouver and Longview areas of Washington state, testing for 22 chemical flame retardants in common household dust. The study found 21 chemical flame retardants in the dust in varying amounts, with 72% of total flame retardant mass made up of chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants, also known as tris. Tris is commonly found in polyurethane foam (used in mattresses, sofas, and other furniture cushioning) and is suspected of being an endocrine disruptor.
Of those 21 flame retardants, the study found that 18 could be detected in laundry wastewater. In other words, the dust appeared to be adhering to clothing and other fabrics there were then washed, with the chemicals then heading to wastewater treatment plants.
By comparing flame retardant levels in wastewater treatment plant influents to estimates based on laundry wastewater levels, the study found that laundry wastewater is likely the primary source of flame retardant chemicals in waterways.
Dust particles are small, so what volume levels of flame retardants are involved? Mass loadings to the Columbia River from each individual treatment plant showed up to approximately 251 pounds per year for the flame retardant chemical TCPP alone. The study found that a single treatment plant along the Columbia River released a combination of three Tris flame retardants at an estimated 384 pounds a year, which the Washington Toxics Coalition estimates to be the equivalent of the flame retardant used to treat 1,088 couches.
With more than 300 wastewater treatment plants in Washington, that adds up (multiple 300 by 384 and you get 115,200 pounds per year as a rough estimate). Research suggests a connection with chlorinated organophosphates and endocrine disruption in fish, but the available research is extremely limited.
The bottom line is that chemical flame retardants commonly found in mattresses and other home furnishings as well as consumer electronics potentially impact more than just people. Studies of the potentially harmful health and developmental effects of these substances must also examine what they mean for the fish and wildlife in and along our rivers and lakes.