Carcinogenic Flame retardants, PBDE’s, are in your furniture, food, soda

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Must read series of articles at the Chicago Tribune:

June 2012: These ongoing articles at the Chicago Tribune have given Governor Jerry Brown of California the courage to ask legislators to reduce or eliminate flame retardant requirements.  That’s great, and if it happens (don’t hold your breath, this will the the 7th attempt), wonderful!  But how many of the other 65,000 chemicals not regulated by the FDA are harming us too?  Arlene Blum has almost single-handedly organized the opposition over the past 6 years to flame retardants, who will do the same for the thousands of other harmful chemicals affecting us?

Fear fans flames for chemical makers. Manufacturers of fire retardants rely on questionable testimony, front groups to push standards that boost demand for their toxic — and ineffective — products.  Chicago Tribune.  By Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe

also in the Chicago Tribune series (and many more not listed):

Flame retardant linked to obesity, anxiety, developmental problems, pilot study finds

The role of Big Tobacco. Cigarette-makers had man on the inside of key fire-safety group

Flame Retardants and their Risks

Flame Retardants Hard to Avoid at Home

Testing shows treated foam offers no safety benefit

There are many more articles than this.


Flame retardants, also known as PBDE’s are not only carcinogenic, they also cause liver damage, sterility, thyroid disorders, endocrine disruption, reduced IQ in children, developmental impairment, birth defects, early onset of puberty, etc., even at very low doses.  Like PCBs, these chemicals live a long time and accumulate at the top end of the food chain, i.e. us.  They are part of the reason why we’re having a mass extinction in our oceans now.

About 65,000 chemicals that were grandfathered in when the FDA was founded from being regulated.  One of these was a flame retardant chemical, Tris, a known carcinogen and finally banned 1977.  But there are 359 nearly identical chemicals like it and they have been re-introduced as flame retardants.

Flame retardants in Furniture, baby products, electronics

How to tell if a product has flame retardants: You can tell furniture has these chemicals if the label says it meets the California furniture flammability standard. Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117).  Don’t ask the sales people, they always claim they don’t know what your talking about.  So zip open a cushion and find the labels.  Nearly all chain stores, such as Pottery Barn, Macy’s, Ikea, Crate and Barrel, and so on sell furniture in all 50 states with flame retardants because California is the most populous (38 million people), and it’s easier to make furniture one way than to 49 different state standards.

Flame retardants are in chair, couch, car seats, baby changing pads, nursing pillows, portable cribs etc. They also are found in some electronics and electrical equipment. And the $4.6 billion industry is growing. Global flame-retardant revenues are likely to reach $5.8 billion by 2018.

You would think that since Tris was banned in 1977 this couldn’t be happening again.  The story of how this happened the most simple and clear example of the corruption in our economic and political system I know of. Please read Liza Gross’s excellent article :Money to burn It’s a case study in buying influence: How the chemical industry spent millions in California to keep flame retardants in furniture” for details.  The chemical industry has bribed our legislators 5 times now to make sure that PBDE’s aren’t removed from products.

Basically, three chemical companies, Albermarle, Chemtura, and Israeli Chemicals Ltd, have spent 23.3 million dollars lobbying the California state legislature to require furniture makers to put these chemicals into foam.

Planet Money, in their December 20, 2011 Podcast: Jack Abramoff On Lobbying, had examples of lobbying return-on-investment that ranged from 220 to 100,000 percent for every lobbying dollar spent.  State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), calls California’s flammability standard “a multibillion-dollar windfall” for the chemical industry.  So let’s see, 23.2 million to get 4.6 billion, is about a 20,000% return on investment of lobbying dollars spent.

Are flame retardants one of the causes of the Obesity Crisis?

Michael Hawthorne. 5 Jun 2012. Tiny doses of flame retardant have health impact, study finds.  Chicago Tribune

Small doses of a flame retardant commonly added to furniture can trigger obesity, anxiety and developmental problems, according to the first independent study of a chemical promoted as safe by industry and government officials.

Baby rats whose mothers ate tiny amounts of the chemical, known as Firemaster 550, gained significantly more weight than others that weren’t exposed.  The chemical made the female offspring more anxious, prompted early puberty and caused abnormal reproductive cycles.

“This raises red flags about a widely used chemical that we know little about,” said co-author Heather Stapleton, a Duke University chemist. “What we do know is it’s common in house dust and that people, especially kids, are being exposed to it.”

Arlene Blum on the Manitoba conference findings: Juliette Legler of VU University in Amsterdam spoke on how endocrine disrupting chemicals such as flame retardants and BPA may contribute to wild animals being too thin and humans too fat.   She described Baltic wasting disease and that a decrease in fat content in fish, birds, and seals in the Baltic sea is leading to this wasting disease in these animals.  Environmental chemicals might be part of the cause. Her talk suggested that flame retardants could be human obesogens – chemicals that disrupt normal development and metabolism. Early life obesogen exposure may explain at least some of the recent rapid increases in the rates of obesity and type II diabetes.


How to tell if a soda has flame retardants: 10% of sodas have BVO or Brominated Vegetable Oil in their ingredient list, such as: Mountain Dew, Squirt, Fanta Orange, Sunkist Pineapple, Gatorade Thirst Quencher Orange, Powerade Strawberry Lemonade, and Fresca Original Citrus.


Flame retardants (PDBEs), are easily absorbed by fatty tissues.

We found PBDE contamination in all food containing animal fats. Although these findings are preliminary, they suggest that food is a major route of intake for PBDEs” said Schecter, environmental sciences professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas.

Several studies have found them in meat, fish, dairy foods, vegetable-based foods, and eggs.

The most heavily PBDE contaminated food was butter, followed by canned sardines and fresh salmon.

It’s disturbing to know that these types of chemicals are present in our food at any level.

Schecter et al found that all US women’s milk samples were contaminated with the highest levels of PBDEs in the world, orders of magnitude higher than European women.

To find out what average PBDE levels in various kinds of fish are, see:

Flame Retardants don’t work!

  • A peer-reviewed study presented at the 10th International Symposium on Fire Safety Science at the University of Maryland on June 21, 2011, shows that California’s furniture flammability standard Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) does not provide measurable fire safety benefits.
  • TB117 requires foam to withstand a small open flame (i.e. a match) for 12 seconds without igniting. Yet the fabric cover doesn’t have to be flame resistant, so the standard makes no sense.
  • At the very most you get 3-4 extra seconds to flee the fire — but it’s smoke and carbon monoxide that kill, not flames!
  • Fire deaths in states WITHOUT flame retardants declined at the same rate as California over 24 years.
  • 560 Americans died in furniture caused fires in 2003, but cancer killed more than 500,000 people.  Most fires are caused by people passing out while smoking cigarettes.  So 1) rather than put flame retardants in furniture, force cigarette manufacturers to make cigarettes go out that aren’t puffed on – which is required in Europe and 2) 80% of Californian’s don’t smoke — why don’t we have a choice of buying furniture without flame retardants? There’s a 90,000% greater chance of dying from cancer (perhaps caused by flame retardants) than a fire!

What you can do to fight PBDE flame retardants

If everyone refuses to buy furniture with flame retardants, perhaps we can pit retailing corporations against the chemical industry, because only large corporations have the money, clout, money, know-how, and money to fight chemical industry lobbyists. At this point, given the high level of corruption across all institutions, our best hope is to set one corporation against another.

Don’t vote for these pro-PBDE California state senators: Committee Chairman Curren Price (D-Los Angeles), Bill Emmerson (R-Riverside), Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), Ed Hernandez, Gloria Negrete McLeod,  Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Hills), and Mark Wyland (R-Escondido). Even if you don’t live in these areas, perhaps you know someone who does.  And write your state senator!

There are hundreds of variations of flame retardants (see Appendix A: Too Much Information) that have bromine or chlorine bound to carbon, so like bop-a-mole, if you get one chemical banned, another pops up.

More scary facts

  • These chemicals are semi-volatile, so they get into the air, dust, and stick to walls and windows.   California dust has 8 times more flame retardant than the rest of the USA.
  • Latino children in the USA have 7 times more flame retardant in their blood than Mexican children.
  • In a survey of 101 commonly used baby products withpolyurethane foam, 80% had toxic or untested halogenated flame retardants.
  • They’re accumulating long-term in the environment.  Arlene Blum 12 Jun 2012: “Rob Letcher from Environment Canada presented the opening keynote address, entitled “Old to New Generation Flame Retardants: Chemical Instability Affects Environmental Persistence and Bioaccumulation.”  He found many replacement flame retardants are unstable in the environment.  This is despite industry claims that they are stable in the laboratory. A number of new flame retardants rapidly degrade to breakdown products that are more bioaccumulative than the parent compound, similar to the breakdown of decaBDE to more toxic forms.”
  • 15 Nov 2012: Flame Retardants Used in Foam Upholstered Furniture and Other Products Linked to Neurodevelopmental Delays in Children


Arlene Blum. 19 Nov 2006. Chemical Burns. The New York Times.

Arlene Blum, 28 Apr 2011. Viewpoints: Flame retardants are the asbestos of our time. Sacramento Bee.

Arlene Blum. 17 Oct 2008. Midnight’s Legacy. Los Angeles Times.

12 Jun 2012 from Arlene Blum on the Brominated Flame Retardant Meeting in Winnipeg, Manitoba:

Beth Buczynski. 14 Dec 2010. Flame-Retardant Chemicals Found In Common

Liza Gross. 1 Dec 2011. Money to burn It’s a case study in buying influence: How the chemical industry spent millions in California to keep flame retardants in furniture. NewsReview.

Robert Sanders. 18 May 2011. Toxic flame retardants found in many foam baby products. University of California, Berkeley News Center.

A Schecter, et. al.  Feb 2008. Brominated flame retardants in US food. Mol Nutr Food Res. 52(2):266-72.

Emily Sohn. 7 Dec 2010. Flame Retardants found in Butter. DiscoveryNews.

12 Dec 2011. Brominated battle: Soda chemical has cloudy health history. Environmental Health News.

14 Nov 2009. Profiles in Later Life. Taking on Mountains—and Toxic Chemicals.  Wall Street Journal.

28 Oct 2010. Seeing Risks Exceed Benefits, Scientists Seek Limits On Flame Retardants. InsideEPA dot com

MSNBC. 1 SEP 2004. Flame retardants found in U.S. food test.

This is hard science, there are hundreds of papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Greensciencepolicy is fighting to get these chemicals out of our furniture and has the  following board members

  • Lauren Heine, Ph.D., Senior Science Advisor, Clean Production Action, Lauren Heine Group LLC
  • Don Kennedy, Ph.D., President Emeritus of Stanford University, former editor-in-chief of Science magazine and former FDA Commissioner
  • Richard Luthy, Ph.D., Silas H. Palmer Professor and Department Chair, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University
  • Nina McClelland, Ph.D., former Chairman of the Board, American Chemical Society; President of Nina I. McClelland, LLC
  • William Nazaroff, Ph.D., Professor, Environmental Engineering, University of California, Berkeley

Details from “Money to Burn” (a must read not just for this issue, but one of the best articles published on exactly how money corrupts politics):

“It’s impossible to determine exactly how the industry spent its lobbying and campaign money because California’s political-reform law does not require itemized reports. It’s also impossible to tell from disclosure statements how lobbyists spent money to influence Schwarzenegger’s office or the regulatory agencies they listed: the California Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Consumer Affairs, Department of Toxic Substances Control, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, State Fire Marshal and Bureau of Home Furnishings.

But an examination of payments to lobbyists and legislators filed with the California Secretary of State’s Office since 2007 revealed that spending increased during critical periods when legislators considered, and killed, legislation to regulate flame retardants.

Only payments from top flame-retardant manufacturers, their trade groups and lobbyists were included in the $23.2 million, and only if lobbying groups listed flame-retardant issues on their disclosure forms. The amount does not include $742,000 in campaign donations from Chevron, Dow, Exxon and Occidental—which all produce flame retardants—because the companies lobbied California legislators on many other issues related to oil and chemicals”.

Appendix A: Too much information

I got tired of googling around for all the names of flame retardants, there are potentially something like 360 given the 3 ring structure, here are a few I found:

Short-chain chlorinated paraffins
Tetrabromobisphenol A
Tris[2-chloro-1-(chloromethyl) ethyl] phosphate
2,2-Bis(bromomethyl)-1,3-propanediol [CAS No. 3296-90-0]
2,2-Bis(chloromethyl)trimethylene bis[bis(2-chloroethyl)phosphate]
[CAS No. 38051-10-4]
Bis(2-hydroxyethyl ether) TBBPA [CAS No. 4162-45-2]
Chlorendic acid [CAS No. 115-28-6]
2,3-Dibromopropyl-2.4.6-tribromophenyl ether [35109-60-5]
N-N-Ethylene-bis(tetrabromophthalimide) [CAS No. 32588-76-4]
2-Ethylhexyl 2,3,4,5-tetrabromobenzoate [CAS No.183658-27-7]
Hexabromobenzene [CAS No. 87-82-1]
Hexachlorocyclopentadienyl-dibromocyclooctane [CAS No. 51936-55-1]
Pentabromotoluene [CAS No. 87-83-2]
Tetrabromobisphenol A bis(2,3)dibromopropyl ether [CAS No. 21850-44-2]
Tetrabromophthalic anhydride [CAS No. 632-79-1]
Tetrakis(2-chloroethyl)dichloroisopentyldiphosphate [CAS No. 38051-10-4]
2, 4, 6-Tribromophenol [CAS No 118-79-6]
Tris(1-chloro-2-propyl)phosphate [CAS No. 13674-84-5]
Tris(2,3-dichloro-1-propyl)phosphate [CAS No. 66108-37-0]
Triphenyl phosphate

Another reason I stopped looking is because each chemical has synonyms.
1,2-Bis(2,4,6-tribromophenoxy)ethane can also be called:

  1. 37853-59-1
  2. 59764-36-2
  13. BTBPE
  14. CCRIS 4752
  19. EINECS 253-692-3
  20. FF 680
  21. FF-680
  22. FIREMASTER 680
  24. HSDB 6099


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