What Are Flame Retardants?
Flame retardants are a group of chemicals regularly added to polyurethane foam, which is a common material used to make mattresses as well as furniture. Because polyurethane foam is made from materials derived from fossil fuels, and therefore highly combustible, flame retardants are added. There are numerous types of flame retardants, many of which are proprietary, meaning we don’t yet know exactly which chemicals they contain (because federal trade secret laws allow manufacturers to keep this information private).
The efficacy of flame retardants is debated, as they may not be effective in preventing fire or providing significantly more time for an exit in the event of a fire.
The Health Concerns
Several scientific studies have linked flame retardants to many health impacts including the various effects of endocrine disruption, lower IQ, hyperactivity, altered sexual development, altered neurodevelopment, other adverse pregnancy outcomes, fertility issues, thyroid dysfunction, and cancer.
Household dust is a common route of exposure to flame retardant chemicals. Because some flame retardants are not heavily bound to the products they’re used in, flame retardants can migrate from a product, like a mattress, and land in household dust. From there, they’re inhaled, consumed, and then stored in our bodies.
Children are especially at risk for exposure as they often play, nap, and sit on the floor, and also handle objects that have touched the floor. Young children often place their hands in their mouth; this is a common route of exposure to flame retardants. Because their bodies are still developing, children are considered a population vulnerable to chemical exposure that can disrupt various systems. That means the very fact that development is ongoing in children makes them particularly susceptible to flame retardant chemicals.
Some flame retardants can also negatively impact the environment. Flame retardants have been found in the tissues of polar bears, sea otters, killer whales, and more. Many flame retardants can be persistent in the environment (meaning they stick around), can bioaccumulate (accumulate in organisms’ tissues), and can biomagnify (accumulate progressively in organisms’ tissues moving up the food chain).
How to Avoid Them
- Skip polyurethane foam products altogether. When used correctly, natural materials like cotton and wool can meet national flammability standards without the use of chemical flame retardants. Shop for mattresses comprised of these natural materials to avoid flame retardants.
- Flame retardants are often used in polyurethane foam products like mattresses and furniture. If you must choose a product containing foam, look for those made without flame retardants. You will likely need to ask the manufacturer if any flame retardants are used. If they will not respond to your inquiry, consider that a red flag and shop elsewhere.
- Reduce your contact with household dust and lint: wash hands before meals (especially children’s hands), wash hands after handling your dryer’s lint trap, clean floors using a mop or vacuum with a HEPA filter, and frequently wash children’s toys that come in contact with the floor.
- Other products can contain flame retardants too. If possible, skip foam-based products like nursing pillows, kids’ furniture, changing pads, portable crib mattresses, and more. Choose natural materials like cotton and wool instead.
- Children’s pajamas can also be treated with flame retardants. Instead, look for close-fitting PJs made from organic cotton.
- It is very hard to avoid flame retardants in strollers and car seats. To provide some barrier, we recommend covering these surfaces with a cotton cover that is washed frequently.
- Shop MADE SAFE certified mattresses and bedding. Certified products are made without flame retardants as well as without known or suspected carcinogens, neurotoxins, developmental toxins, environmental toxins, and more.