Fighting Flame Retardant Chemicals

Sick little girl in bed.

Flame retardant chemicals linked to cancer and hormone disruption have been detected in a group of California children at higher levels than found in an earlier study of kids in New Jersey, EWG researchers said in a report released today.

California mothers who participated in the study along with their children also had higher exposures to the carcinogenic flame retardant TDCIPP than their New Jersey counterparts, but the differences were not as extreme as in their children.

The study by researchers at Duke University and EWG, published in the peer-reviewed journal Environment International, also found that the youngest California children were the most highly exposed. The findings were based on laboratory analysis of urine samples from 33 children and 28 mothers.

The testing showed that, on average, the California children had been exposed to TDCIPP in amounts more than double those detected in a 2014 study of New Jersey children of the same age. The California mothers’ exposure levels were nearly twice those of their New Jersey peers.

“We need regulations that reduce exposures to potentially harmful chemicals, not ones that can increase them,” said Johanna Congleton, EWG senior scientist and co-author of the new study. “As the government considers a national furniture flammability standard and moves to overhaul the federal chemical regulatory system, this should be taken as a lesson.”

In California, levels of a metabolite of the flame retardant TDCIPP detected in 1-to-5-year olds were on average 15 times higher than those in their mothers. The California mothers and children also had higher levels of a metabolite of a second flame retardant – ip-PDPP, a suspected endocrine disruptor – than those in the New Jersey study. The metabolite, ip-PPP, forms as the body processes the original chemical.

“These organophosphate flame retardant chemicals (i.e. TDCIPP) are found in higher concentrations in the air and dust particles in these homes than PBDEs, a class of flame retardants that was phased out due to its potential toxicity. Moving from PBDEs to organophosphate flame retardants may not have reduced the health risks to children,” said Heather M. Stapleton, associate professor at Duke University and co-author of the study.

Flame retardants can build up more in the bodies of younger children than in older kids or adults because they breathe in more air and are exposed to more dust particles relative to their body weight than adults. The chemicals, widely used to treat upholstered furniture and even cushioning in baby products, can escape and accumulate in household air, and in dust on floors where toddlers and babies play. Children’s frequent hand-to-mouth activity can also increase their exposure.

The dramatic difference in exposure levels between the two studies was likely the result of a 1975 California law that required that all polyurethane foam used in furniture sold in the state be able to withstand ignition for 12 seconds when exposed to an open flame. The cheapest and easiest way for furniture manufacturers to comply was to add flame retardant chemicals to the foam. The law was recently changed to allow furniture manufacturers to avoid the use of the chemicals, but items containing them remain in many homes. Although New Jersey had no such requirement, the California law led companies to sell furniture laced with flame retardants across the country.

The study authors noted that higher levels of PBDE exposure have also been reported in California than in other states, supporting evidence that the misguided law led to excessive and potentially unsafe use of flame retardant chemicals.