Are Flame Retardants Unhealthy? A Pediatrician Breaks it Down!

Woman researching flame retardants on her laptop while her dog sits close by

Flame retardants are a subject we’re passionate about, and Naturepedic is happy to hear from Dr. Lavin on the matter. Don't forget you can get more trusted health information from Dr. Lavin on the ParentTalk Podcast!

When we talk about flame retardant chemicals, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the dread of our child’s pajamas catching on fire – and the wonder of this set of chemicals being able to keep such flames, such tragedy, at bay.

But sadly that is not the real story of flame retardants. The group of chemicals that we call flame retardants turns out to have little to do with children’s pajamas and much more to do with compounds that evaporate from all sorts of household items and go on to cause damage to developing brains.

Unfortunately, that’s the reality. Flame retardant chemicals are a group of chemicals that cause more harm than good.

What Was the Intended Benefit of Flame Retardants? 

Appartment building on fire with flames coming out of a unit's windowAppartment building on fire with flames coming out of a unit's window

In the 1970s, there was a call to find something that could be added to clothing, bedding and furniture to slow the ignition of them going up in flame when exposed to fire. This call was answered by a wide variety of chemicals.

One such category of compounds are what are called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. If this term is unfamiliar to you, you may recall a very toxic category of chemicals called PCBs, which are polychlorinated biphenyls and are very closely related. Well, the PBDEs now include over 200 specific chemicals, many of which will form a layer on the surface of cloth when heated that slows its ignition. 

This does seem to delay the ignition of fabric by about 12 seconds. But, it cannot really stop a fire from spreading across a house or dwelling. Yet, the 12-second delay met the demand to add something to what we wear and use to slow the spread of flames, and so in the spirit of fighting fires, flame retardants became the easiest way to meet the requirements – regardless of any toxicity.

The Reality and Health Risks of Flame Retardants

To put it simply, flame retardant chemicals do the opposite of what was intended. This is because they ultimately result in more death by fire, as well as vast harms across humanity. Does that sound like an exaggeration? Keep reading.

More Harm from Fire 

The tragedy of flame retardant chemicals starts with the fact that they do in fact burn in fires, and when they do, they release carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. These chemicals are the cause of the vast majority of death by fire, both to residents and firefighters. The addition of the PBDEs has increased, not decreased, the chance of dying when exposed to a burning home or office.

Young woman lying awake in bed, looking up at the ceilingYoung woman lying awake in bed, looking up at the ceiling

Harm to Humanity 

Many are surprised to learn that the flame retardants, the PBDEs and their related compounds, are added not just to children’s pajamas but to almost all furniture and, most surprisingly, they are part of the plastic resin that makes up all our laptops and cell phones!  The problem is that these compounds are not chemically attached to these plastics and textiles, so they off-gas into the air we breathe all day long.

As a result, if you test the blood or urine for these compounds for just about anyone in the U.S., you will find the PBDEs present. Now that is a big problem because PBDEs interfere with two very important functions:

  • Reproduction
  • Brain development

These chemicals act like hormones and disrupt thyroid, estrogen and other hormonal functions. As a result, the nearly universal exposure to PBDEs has led to decreased fertility.  The impact on brain development is just as disturbing. We now know that exposure to PBDEs during pregnancy and early childhood is clearly associated with increased risk of developing:

  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • ADHD
  • Learning disorders

It should be noted that PBDEs are just one example of flame retardant chemicals. There are many, many types of flame retardants that can lead to health issues. 

Are Toxic Flame Retardants Being Examined at All? 

The good news is that some states have banned use of materials containing PBDEs, including California, Maine and Washington. In fact, the U.S. banned the manufacture of all PBDEs in 2013 but not all PBDE-related compounds are banned for use. Across the pond, the European Union has banned the use of PBDEs and the related flame retardants PCBs. And, the international body that monitors toxic chemicals, the Stockholm Convention, has long listed PBDEs and related flame retardants as toxins that all nations should ban. 

Even so, a massive amount of these flame retardant chemicals still reside in most of our mattresses, bedding, pillows, couches, chairs, wires in homes and electronic devices.

Tips for Protecting Against Exposure to Toxic Flame Retardants 

Woman dusting her shelves to help reduce the risk of fireWoman dusting her shelves to help reduce the risk of fire

A world in which we are not exposed to these very toxic compounds seems out of reach right now, but the increased banning of ongoing use will eventually lead to less exposure. In the meantime, there are steps families can take to reduce their child’s exposure to toxic flame retardant compounds:

  • Don’t buy mattresses, couches, cushioned chairs, clothing with any flame retardants in them.
  • If you have the option of buying laptops and cell phones that are free of all flame retardants do so.
  • Try to reduce the dust in your home by dusting frequently and using techniques that pick up and do not scatter dust.
  • Try to avoid eating the fat in meats as animals concentrate flame retardants in their bodies just like we humans do, and they all concentrate in fat.
  • Keep young children, and everyone in the family, from mouthing remotes and cell phones, so many of which contain flame retardants.
  • Repair cushions, especially the dominant type, polyurethanes, which typically are loaded with flame retardants. Torn cushions release more of them.
  • When you buy clothing for babies, children, and all ages, check to see if the manufacturer adds flame retardants and try to buy only those that do not.

Dr. Lavin’s Bottom Lines on Flame Retardant Chemicals 

  • The term “flame retardant” sounds like a good idea because stopping fire always sounds like a very good idea. And, the move to slow the ignition of our furniture, clothing and more led to the adoption of flame retardants in the 1970s.
  • But, the flame retardants we use don’t really stop fires from spreading and when fire burns, these compounds release deadly vapors that make fire far deadlier.
  • Even with no fire around, flame retardants are now known to be responsible for a lot of troubles with reproductive health, including infertility. And, there’s evidence that they impair brain development and play a role in the development of autism spectrum disorder, ADHD and learning disorders.
  • Sadly, the use of these compounds in so many clothes, furniture, electronics and wiring has led to nearly every human carrying a very heavy exposure to them.
  • Fortunately, some states in the U.S. and the European Union have taken steps to end future exposures.
  • In the meantime, there are steps families can take to reduce their babies’, children’s and everyone’s exposure to these damaging chemicals.

Dr. Arthur Lavin, M.D.Dr. Arthur Lavin, M.D.

Arthur Lavin, M.D., is a pediatrician with 25+ years of experience. Dr. Lavin trained at Harvard, Ohio State University and MIT, earning board certifications as a general pediatrician and as a specialist in newborn medicine. He has served as president of the Northern Ohio Pediatric Society and on a number of national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Lavin received international recognition from Microsoft for being a pioneer in the use of technology in medicine, and has been at the forefront of applying the lessons of brain science to helping families advance their children’s learning and coping needs. Dr. Lavin now co-hosts the ParentTalk podcast.