Do you know what your nursing pillows, stroller cushions, and other foam baby products are made of? Did you know many contain flame retardants?
Clearly it's important to prevent fires, but some of the methods we use to do so are much more effective than others. Recent declines in fire injuries and deaths can be attributed to decreased smoking, adoption of fire-safe cigarettes, and improved fire safety measures like smoke alarms and sprinkler systems.
One of the more ineffective approaches taken is loading products with chemical flame retardants. In fact, foam treated with these chemicals ignites and burns after seconds, giving off high levels of toxic gases and smoke, which are the leading cause of fire injury and death.
Even without burning, products that contain these chemicals release them and cause harm. According to Dr. Harpreet Malhi, a California physician and mother, "peer-reviewed animal and human studies find associations between flame retardants and decreased IQ in children, learning disabilities such as attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity, cancer, cryptorchidism (undescended testicles), decreased sperm quality, increased time to pregnancy, and endocrine and thyroid disruption."
And she's not the only concerned expert. A landmark scientific consensus on the health and environmental hazards of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants, called the San Antonio Statement, was published in the December 2010 journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP). To date, more than 200 scientists and physicians from 30 countries have signed to show their concern about the persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic properties of these chemicals.
Because of an outdated and ineffective regulation in California, called TB 117, which has become a de facto requirement for flame retardant chemicals. "Right now, California is the only jurisdiction in the world that requires bare foam to withstand a 12-second open flame before being sold," says Malhi. "Yet, according to the U.S. National Fire Protection Association, California's decline in fire injuries and deaths is similar to other states. TB 117 has not been proven to increase fire safety since its adoption more than three decades ago."
Even if you don't live in California, this law impacts you because manufacturers don't make different products for different states. Check the tags on any foam products you have. If the product is labeled as meeting California TB 117, it likely contains toxic fire retardants.
"We are exposed to flame retardant chemicals on a constant basis," says Malhi. "It exists in our couches and office chairs, at our dining tables and in our bedrooms, and it lives and stays inside all of us after we breathe in contaminated dust particles. In the last forty years alone, levels of these chemicals have increased forty-fold in human breast milk."
What should you do?
- Avoid products labeled as meeting California TB 117.
- For products you own, call the manufacturer and ask if any flame retardants were used (and if so, what kind).
- Wash hands regularly. Flame retardants typically end up in our household dust, which ends up on our hands. So you don't dry out skin, save soap for the post-bathroom and pre-eating washings. Simply rinse with water on a more occasional basis (especially with babies and toddlers that are in mouthing and chewing phases).
- Capture dust. Wipe surfaces with a damp cloth. Wipe hard floors with a damp mop. (You only need to use water for these tasks - save cleansers for deeper cleaning). And vacuum with a HEPA filter regularly. Some experts call for twice weekly eradication of dust, but don't get neurotic.
- Swipe your screens. Some of the most contaminated dust is that found on TV and computer screens. Wipe them regularly and dispose of old electronics responsibly (check out earth911.org).