12/13/2012 09:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dangerous Dust Bunnies: How to Avoid Flame Retardants

by guest blogger Robin Dodson, of Silent Spring Institute

Did you know that consumer products like furniture, textiles, and electronics often contain chemical flame retardants, and that these chemicals can come out of the products into household dust and the environment, where people are exposed to them?  For most of these chemicals, house dust is a major source of exposure, particularly for children, who spend lots of time on the floor, frequently putting things (like hands!) into their mouths.

At Silent Spring Institute, we previously conducted a study that showed that Californians had higher levels of a class of flame retardants known as PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in their bodies and homes, likely the result of a unique statewide furniture flammability standard. Fortunately, PBDEs have been phased out (or will be soon) due to health concerns. Unfortunately, we don't know much about what is being used instead.

To understand how people are exposed to a whole range of flame-retardant chemicals, we tested again in 2011 the California homes that we had studied in 2006. This was the first study to evaluate such a large number of chemical flame retardants in house dust and the first to measure flame retardants in repeat house dust samples in the years after PentaBDE was phased out.

We found a wide range of flame retardants in house dust. Some are hormone disruptors or carcinogens, and others have been put into use without being thoroughly tested for safety.  The majority of homes had levels that exceeded a health guideline. Two chemicals found at some of the highest levels are listed as carcinogens under California's Proposition 65 program. While levels of thyroid-disrupting PentaBDE declined in the newer study's tests--particularly in homes reporting new furniture, flooring, and electronics--levels of yet-to-be-fully-characterized Firemaster® 550, an advertised replacement for PentaBDE, increased. Our results indicated that manufacturers continue to use hazardous chemicals as flame retardants and to replace chemicals of concern with chemicals with uncharacterized toxicity.

We've come up with a few tips on how you can reduce your exposure to flame retardants:
  • Go natural. Choose naturally flame-resistant materials such as wool, cotton, and down.
  • If it's ripped, fix it. Make sure foam is not exposed in furniture.
  • Keep dust down. Vacuum regularly with a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter and wipe surfaces with a wet cloth or mop, although keep it simple with the cleaners.
  • Wash hands frequently. Studies have shown that hand washing reduces the amount of flame retardants in our bodies. Make sure kids wash their hands, too!
  • Buy snug-fitting pajamas for babies and kids. Sleepwear for kids 9 months and older is subject to flammability tests, and a snug fit keeps flames from reaching tender young skin. Watch out for the big yellow tag to avoid pajamas treated with flame retardants.
  • Get involved. Since California's furniture flammability standard means flame-retardant chemicals are used in the majority of upholstered furniture in the U.S., get involved in the push to revise this standard.
  • Change the system. To make sure chemicals are tested for safety before being put into use, urge your elected officials to support the Safe Chemicals Act.
To learn more about the study, visit our website.


Robin Dodson, ScD, is a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute, a not-for-profit scientific organization researching the links between the environment and health.  Her expertise is in indoor environmental exposure assessment.

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