Flame retardants are used in many products including upholstery and furniture. Certain groups of flame retardants have been linked to a range of human health problems, including breast cancer. Some are known carcinogens and certain flame retardants act as oestrogen mimics, which is also a concern for breast cancer risk.
What are flame retardants and where are they used?
Flame retardants are chemicals used in consumer and industrial products to prevent or delay fires and reduce flammability, especially of synthetic materials. Their use is required for compliance with The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988, which applies to new and second hand domestic upholstered furniture, furnishings and other products containing upholstery supplied in the UK.
Flame retardants are found in electronics, furniture and furnishings, clothing and fabrics, building materials and vehicles. They may be released into the environment during normal product use, as well as during manufacture, disposal, recycling, and when products are exposed to fire (1). Because of strict UK fire regulations, many materials and products sold in this country contain especially high amounts of flame retardants (2).
Some flame retardants are harmful and pose a risk to human health and the environment; this article refers to only these. Although certain especially harmful flame retardants have been banned, they are still present in the environment (3). The potentially harmful groups include brominated, chlorinated, and organophosphorus flame retardants.
Flame retardants, the environment and human exposures
Flame retardants have been detected in air, dust, soil, water, food, and wildlife. People are exposed mainly from breathing contaminated dust and through diet (4).
Several flame retardants are classified as persistent organic pollutants by the UN (5, 6) (in other words they can last for a very long time in the environment). Many flame retardants are bioaccumulative (accumulate inside cells), and are toxic to wildlife and humans. They are regularly identified in human body fluids such as blood, urine and breast milk, and in placental tissue (7, 8). High concentrations can be found in some oily fish and meat (9). In general, levels are higher in children than adults, probably from exposure via breastfeeding and dust (10).
Flame retardants: are there potential links to breast cancer?
Some flame retardants are carcinogenic (11, 12) (cause cancer) and some act as endocrine disrupting chemicals (13, 14), interfering with our hormone system, including the hormone oestrogen (15). Certain flame retardants can trigger similar actions to those initiated by oestrogen and so may increase breast cancer risk (16). Oestrogen is linked to increased breast cancer risk mainly because it encourages a high rate of cell division, which increases the possibility of mutations, including those that lead to breast cancer.
There is growing debate as to whether flame retardants reduce the risk of fire deaths or injuries significantly (17). In addition, flame retardants may increase the toxicity of fumes released in house fires, making it more difficult to escape (18).
Breast Cancer UK believes that measures which do not pose a risk to human health should be encouraged as a priority to promote fire safety, including increased use of new generation smoke detectors and other fire safety equipment in the home, improved product design with an inherent high fire safety level, and the use of less toxic flame retardants.
Please see here for a list of references cited; for more information on flame retardants and their possible link to breast cancer download our detailed background briefing on the right hand side of this page.
Page last updated April 25, 2018