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Flame retardants: Why do we have them and how are they harmful?

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Flame retardants are chemicals that are added to products to reduce the risk of fire. These chemicals are commonly found in electronics, furniture, textiles, and building materials. While the use of flame retardants can prevent fire accidents, they also have harmful effects on human health and the environment. In this article, we will explore the purpose of flame retardants, their potential risks, and how to minimize exposure.

The Purpose of Flame Retardants

Flame retardants are designed to slow down or prevent the spread of fire. They work by interrupting the chemical reaction that fuels the fire, either by creating a barrier or by releasing water or gas to cool down the surface. Flame retardants are used in a wide range of products, including electronics, furniture, textiles, and building materials.

The use of flame retardants is governed by regulations in many countries, including the United States, Europe, and Japan. These regulations require manufacturers to use flame retardants in certain products to meet safety standards. However, some flame retardants have been found to be harmful to human health and the environment.

Health Risks of Flame Retardants

Many flame retardants are persistent and bioaccumulative, which means they do not break down easily and can build up in the environment and in our bodies. Some flame retardants have been linked to health problems such as cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, and neurological disorders.

The most commonly used flame retardants are polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and chlorinated tris (TDCPP). PBDEs have been found to be toxic to the liver, thyroid, and brain, and can disrupt the endocrine system. TDCPP has been classified as a carcinogen by the State of California.

Environmental Risks of Flame Retardants

Flame retardants can also have harmful effects on the environment. They can enter the air, water, and soil through manufacturing processes, use, and disposal. Some flame retardants have been found to be toxic to wildlife, including fish, birds, and mammals. They can also disrupt the ecological balance by altering the behavior and reproduction of animals.

Minimizing Exposure to Flame Retardants

There are several ways to minimize exposure to flame retardants. One way is to choose products that are labeled as flame-retardant-free or low in flame retardants. This can include products made from natural materials, such as wool, cotton, and silk.

Another way to reduce exposure is to avoid products that contain certain flame retardants, such as PBDEs and TDCPP. Some manufacturers have already phased out the use of these chemicals, but they may still be present in older products.

It is also important to handle and dispose of products that contain flame retardants properly. This includes not burning or incinerating them, as this can release toxic fumes into the air.

While regulations require manufacturers to use flame retardants in certain products to meet safety standards, it is important to be aware of the potential risks associated with these chemicals. By taking steps to minimize exposure, such as choosing flame-retardant-free or low-flame-retardant products and properly handling and disposing of products that contain flame retardants, we can reduce the harm caused by these chemicals.

It is also important for policymakers and industry leaders to continue exploring safer alternatives to flame retardants. As research continues to uncover the harmful effects of these chemicals, it is essential that we work towards finding solutions that balance safety and health concerns.

In conclusion, flame retardants play an important role in preventing fire accidents, but they also pose potential risks to human health and the environment. By understanding the purpose and impact of these chemicals, we can make informed decisions about the products we choose to buy and use. With continued research and innovation, we can work towards a safer and healthier future for all.

Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH

Aaron Bernstein is the Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics.

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