As Washington state decides on stronger toxics law, residents are breathing flame retardants

A new generation of chemicals added to furniture, building insulation and baby products like car seats to slow the spread of flames are escaping into air at higher levels than previously thought, according to a new study out of Washington state.

The findings come as Washington lawmakers decide on bolstering flame retardant bans. The state was one of the first to ban an earlier generation of retardants, known as PBDEs.

The new research found flame retardant chemicals used to replace polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) also escape, are ubiquitous in indoor air and suggest inhalation is a major route of exposure for people.

The compounds, called chlorinated organophosphate flame retardants, found in the study have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems, and some can alter hormones essential for development.

Johan/Wikimedia

“We’ve been underestimating what total exposure is,” said Erika Schreder, staff scientist at the Washington Toxics Coalition and lead author of the study published this month in the scientific journal Chemosphere.

Researchers gave 10 people from Washington state an air sampler that simulates breathing to wear during a normal day: office work, commuting, hanging out at home. They tested for a suite of the new generation of chlorinated flame retardants and found all 10 were breathing some amount of them throughout the day.

Exposure to one of the most prevalent compounds was up to 30 times greater than ingesting the chemicals via dust. The distinction is important: dust exposure occurs largely through the mouth, previously thought to be the major exposure route for banned PBDEs.

“With PBDEs, inhalation wasn’t considered as important,” said Amina Salamova, an environmental chemist and researcher at Indiana University Bloomington who studies toxic pollutants. Inhalation of PBDEs accounted for between 10 and 20 percent of exposure, she added. “With the replacements, we see quite a different picture.”

Chlorinated flame retardants are used mostly in polyurethane foam, often in building insulation and everyday products such as furniture, children’s car seats and baby strollers. The compounds are substitutes for PBDEs, which were widely used as flame retardants until scientists reported they were building up in people and wildlife and various bans took hold.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical manufacturers, has long maintained flame retardant chemicals are necessary to prevent fires and protect people. In response to the recent study, Bryan Goodman, director of product communications for the council, said in an email that exposure via ingestion and inhalation is “anticipated and regulators generally take this into account” when assessing the risk of chemicals.

However, Salamova, who was not involved in the recent study, said the inhalation concerns raised by Schreder’s study were especially alarming and novel because it was levels of really small particles that were quite high.

“These really go all the way down your air tract and penetrate into the lung tissue,” she said.

While chlorinated flame retardants have been around for decades, Salamova said scientists have recently started to understand them as, at first, it was thought they weren’t harmful or able to accumulate in people and wildlife. However there is evidence the replacement are following the same path as PBDEs: chlorinated flame retardants have been found inhousehold dust, children’s products, drinking water, and mother-toddlers pairs.

Two chlorinated flame retardants have been flagged by the state of California as carcinogens, and animal research suggests they may hamper brain development as well.

Washington state legislators introduced bills in the state House and Senate to ban five flame retardants from furniture and children’s products, which would also set up a system to make sure new replacements are safe. The bill includes flame retardants found in the air in the recent study.

The House bill will have a hearing this Wednesday.

The study, said Schreder, the lead author, “doesn’t give us the final answer on exposure.” But it does offer “a good indication of the range” that people are exposed to, she said.

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For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.