Flame Retardants Under Fire: What Are PBDEs and BFRs?

Decoding Household Chemicals

At first, flame retardants like PBDEs and other BFRs seemed like a good idea. Then, unintended consequences—like fertility issues and lowered IQs—came along, and we've got ourselves into a pickle. Read more to find out how to avoid PBDEs and BFRs.

The Skinny Science:
Polybrominated diphenyl ether, or PBDE, is composed of many bromine atoms attached to two phenyl rings linked by oxygen.

PBDEs leach into the environment because they are not chemically bound to the materials to which they are added. Ironically and unfortunately, they want to stick to our bodies, specifically, our fat tissue.

They are found in many areas of our daily lives such as meats, home furnishings, polyurethane foams, furniture, carpeting, textiles, building materials, electronics, plastics, automobiles, and airplanes. PBDEs are members of a larger class of brominated chemicals of flame retardants called brominated flame retardants, or BFRs.

Word to the Wise:
PBDEs are persistent toxic chemicals that accumulate in people, animals and the environment by building up in blood, breast milk, and fat tissues. Toxicological testing indicates that these chemicals may cause impaired fertility, decreased IQ, neurodevelopmental impairment in children, and liver and thyroid toxicity. Exposure is widespread, with 97% of Americans having detectable levels.

Environmental health researcher at Boston University’s School of Public Health, Alicia Fraser said:

"[PBDEs] are persistent in the environment. They don’t get broken down. Therefore, it takes a really long time for the contamination to leave our environment and our bodies...Most people would want policies that would stop us from being exposed to them.”

Green your Routine:
PBDEs have been globally detected in soil, sediment, food, and air. So far, studies show that primary contact is through: (1) meats and (2) household dust. Meats, because PBDEs bioaccumulate in fat. And household dust because they leach from your home furnishings and come in from the air outside. A new study published in Environmental Science & Technology finds that PBDE levels in your blood corresponds to the level found in your household dust.

While two PBDEs have been phased out, industry is quickly finding new flame retardants to replace them. What can we do to reduce exposure to PBDEs, BFRs, and the new replacements?

  • Dust and vacuum routinely, and make sure your vacuum has a HEPA filter.
  • Be moderate about eating animal products.
  • Wash your hands periodically. (The jury is still out on this one, but some scientists say
     that hand washing—because of dust sticking to the oil on your hands—could help
     reduce PBDE exposure.)
  • Avoid PBDE in any new furnishings you introduce to your home.
  • If the timing is right, consider replacing mattresses, polyurethane foams, furniture,
     carpeting, textiles, and any other home furnishings that contain PBDE.

As always, stay informed, be conscious of cumulative exposure, and green your routine to what fits you best.

Extra Tidbits:
  • Alternative names quicklist: PBDE, polybrominated diphenyl ether, BFR, brominated
     flame retardant.
  • Levels of PBDEs are approximately 20 times higher in the United States than in
     Europe.
  • For more information, check out these sources: Environmental Health Perspectives,
     Environmental Protection Agency.

Previous Decoding Household Chemical Posts:
  • Breast Defense: Chemicals and the Environment
  • What is BPA, a.k.a. Bisphenol A?
  • The Secret Chemicals in Fragrances
  • Hygiene Products for Dummies: Cosmetic Safety Database
  • What is Dioxin? How to Avoid Toxin Dioxin
  • The Dirt on Bleach: What makes Chlorine Bleach Bad News?
  • What is Triclosan? A Shady Chemical You should Unfriend

(Image: Flickr member dcwriterdawn licensed for use under Creative Commons)