Update on flame retardant chemicals in furniture, cars

Information published by The Green Science Policy Institute.

“First chlorinated tris was found in children’s pajamas, then removed because it was a mutagen that changed DNA. Then it was used in furniture and children’s products; and removed due to its cancer-causing properties. Frustratingly, it is still used in cars and other vehicles. The carcinogenic and neurotoxic flame retardant tris (1,3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate (TDCPP, or “chlorinated tris”) has been recognized as harmful for over 40 years since it was removed from children’s sleepwear. Yet most of us are still exposed to this flame retardant on a regular basis in our cars.

Since the 1970’s, vehicle interiors have been required to pass an open flame standard, which is most easily met by adding flame retardant chemicals to vehicle seat foam, dashboard plastics, and more. While one might assume that adding chemicals characterized as “flame retardants” helps prevent the spread of fires, this is not always the case. For example, upholstered furniture foam containing flame retardants does not have a significant fire-safety benefit over furniture that instead meets a smolder standard like TB117-2013. Furthermore, the addition of flame retardants increased both the amount and toxicity of smoke. Boston firefighter Jay Fleming suggests that the name “smoke accelerator” is more accurate than “flame retardant” to describe flame retardants like Tris that are commonly used in foam and plastic.

Although chlorinated tris is listed as a carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65, auto manufacturers can continue using it in cars. We urge manufacturers to find healthier ways to meet the current flammability standard and welcome partnerships to achieve this goal. In the meantime, you can reduce your own exposure to chlorinated tris and other flame retardants used in vehicles by opening your windows for a few minutes at the beginning of a drive, keeping your car free of dust, and washing your hands before eating.

Common Chemicals in Electronics and Baby Products Harm Brain Development

Decades after chlorinated tris was removed from baby pajamas in the 1970s, new harmful flame retardant chemicals keep cropping up in children’s products. Our Institute’snew paper in Environmental Health Perspectives found that organophosphate esters—increasingly used as flame retardants and plasticizers in car seats and other children’s products, as well as cars, electronics, furniture, and building products—may harm IQ, attention, and memory in children in ways not yet considered by regulators.

These chemicals are being used as replacements for organohalogen flame retardants under the incorrect assumption that they’re safe. Just like their predecessors, organophosphate esters continuously migrate out of products into air and dust. Contaminated dust gets on our hands and is then inadvertently ingested when we eat. Children are particularly exposed from hand-to-mouth behavior. Babies and young children consequently have much higher concentrations of these chemicals in their bodies during the most vulnerable windows of brain development.

The paper concludes with a call to end all nonessential uses of organophosphate esters, including their use as flame retardants to meet ineffective flammability standards in consumer products, vehicles, and building materials.
“Organophosphate esters threaten the brain development of a whole generation,” said co-author and retired NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum. “If we don’t stem their use now, the consequences will be grave and irreversible.”

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