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Toxic Flame Retardants (PBDEs)

profile of toxic flame retardants (PBDEs)

A Burning Problem In Our Bodies

Found in blood samples from 10 of 10 Washingtonians in the Pollution in People study

PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are industrial toxic chemicals, used for more than 30 years, to retard flame in consumer electronic plastics, furniture, and mattresses.

There are three common mixtures of these chemicals—penta, octa, and deca.

  • Penta and octa are no longer produced in the U.S., but millions of pounds remain in homes, offices, and the environment due to extensive use in consumer products.
  • Deca is still used widely, with about 50 million pounds a year in the U.S. used primarily in television casings. Deca demand is expected to grow because it is now approved for use to meet new federal fire safety standards for residential furniture and mattresses.
  • Deca has been shown to break down into penta and octa.

How am I exposed?

pbdestuffA number of studies have found PBDEs in house dust as well as indoor air, which is considerably more contaminated with these chemicals than outdoor air.  It is likely that PBDEs migrate out of products like furniture and electronics and wind up in house dust. Studies in the U.S., Europe, and Asia have found PBDEs in fish, meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and infant formula.

Why should I be concerned?

  • PBDES are in blood, breastmilk, and umbilical cord blood.
  • Laboratory animals exposed to PBDEs show deficits in learning and memory.
  • PBDEs affect thryroid levels in laboratory animals and in wildlife, and may cause birth defects.

What can government and industry do?

Eight U.S. states have passed legislation to ban Penta and Octa PBDEs, and several states have passed laws to study Deca. In Washington, the Departments of Ecology and Health have called for a phaseout of all forms of PBDEs.

  • The Washington State legislature should adopt legislation to phase out all forms of PBDEs. They failed to pass a bill in 2005 and 2006, which would have begun to accomplish this.
  • State and local governments, and other large purchasers of products should buy PBDE-free products and require, as part of contracts, disclosure of chemical flame retardants in products.
  • Companies should replace PBDEs with safer alternatives that include design changes, better material choices, or chemical flame retardants that are not persistent toxic chemicals.
  • Companies should also disclose chemical flame retardant information for products.

Reducing your exposure to PBDEs

You can take the following steps to reduce your family’s exposure to PBDEs:

Buy PBDE-free furniture. Choose furniture that does not contain PBDEs, which are often used in furniture upholstery and foam. IKEA does not use PBDEs in its products, and Serta states that their mattresses produced after 2005 do not contain PBDEs. Other retailers offering PBDE-free products include:

Greener Lifestyles (couches and chairs)

Furnature (couches and chairs)

Bean Products (couches and chairs)

For more information on companies offering PBDE-free products, see:

Safer Products Project

Smart Shopper’s PBDE Card

If you cannot find information on whether a manufacturer uses PBDEs, contact the company directly.

If you already own furniture that contains PBDEs, cover and seal any rips in upholstery, and consider replacing old items where foam is exposed, loose, and crumbling. Cover mattresses with allergen-barrier casings to reduce the amount of PBDE-laden dust that they release. 

Make electronics PBDE-free. Choose electronics made with alternatives to PBDEs, available from Canon, Dell, HP, Intel, Erickson, Apple, and Sony.  

Avoid farmed fish. European and U.S. farmed salmon have particularly high levels of PBDEs. Choose wild salmon instead.

Reduce animal fats. Choose lean meat and poultry cuts and low-fat dairy products. Cut visible fat off meat and poultry before cooking, and choose lower-fat cooking methods, such as broiling, grilling, roasting, or pressure-cooking.

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