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, UK legislation which applies to new and second hand items.
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 (i). Because of strict UK fire regulations, many materials and products sold in this country contain especially high amounts of flame retardants (ii). People are exposed mainly from breathing contaminated dust and through diet (iii).
Certain flame retardants are harmful and pose a risk to human health and the environment. Some of these have been banned, but are still present in the environment (iv). The potentially harmful groups of flame retardants 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. Several have been classified as persistent organic pollutants by the UN (in other words they can last for a very long time in the environment) (v) (vi). 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 tissues, including placental tissue (vii) (viii). High concentrations can be found in some oily fish and meat (ix). In general, levels are higher in children than adults, probably from exposure via breastfeeding and dust (x).
Flame retardants: are there potential links to breast cancer?
Some flame retardants are carcinogenic (cause cancer) (xi) (xii) and some act as endocrine disrupting chemicals (xiii) (xiv), interfering with our hormone system, including the hormone oestrogen (xv). Some flame retardants can trigger similar actions to those initiated by natural oestrogen and so may increase breast cancer risk (xvi). 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 significantly the risk of fire deaths or injuries (xvii). In addition, flame retardants may increase the toxicity of fumes released in house fires, making it more difficult to escape (xviii).
BCUK believes that as a priority, measures which do not pose a risk to human health should be encouraged to promote fire safety, including the 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.
For more information, download our background briefing on flame retardants
(i) Segev, O. et al. (2009). Environmental Impact of Flame Retardants (Persistence and Biodegradability). International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 6(2): 478-491. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2672362/
(ii) Sjödin, A. et al. (2008). Concentration of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in household dust from various countries. Chemosphere 73: S131-136. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004565350800297X
(iii) Kim, Y. R. et al. (2014). Health consequences of exposure to brominated flame retardants: A systematic review. Chemosphere 106: 1-19. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24529398
(iv) Ezechiáš, M. et al. (2014). Ecotoxicity and biodegradability of new brominated flame retardants: A review. Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety 110: 153-167. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0147651314004084
(v) Hendriks, H. S. et al. (2016). Neurotoxicity and risk assessment of brominated and alternative flame retardants. Neurotoxicology and Teratology 52: 248-269. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0892036215300301
(vi) DiGangi, J. et al. (2011). San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame Retardants, Environmental Health Perspectives, 118, A 516 536, 2010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21123135
(vii) Fromme, H. et al. (2016). Brominated flame retardants – Exposure and risk assessment for the general population. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health 219: 1-23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26412400
(viii) Law, R. J. et al. (2014). Levels and trends of PBDEs and HBCDs in the global environment: Status at the end of 2012. Environment International 65: 147–158. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24486972
(ix) Frederiksen, M. et al. (2009). Human internal and external exposure to PBDEs — a review of levels and sources. International Journal of Hygiene and. Environmental Health 212: 109–134. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18554980
(x) Kim, Y. R. et al. (2014). op. cit.
(xi) Faust, J. B. and August, L. M. (2011). Evidence on the Carcinogenicity of Tris(1,3-Dichloro-2-Propyl) Phosphate. Sacramento, CA: Reproductive and Cancer Hazard Assessment Branch, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, California Environmental Protection Agency. http://oehha.ca.gov/media/downloads/proposition-65/chemicals/tdcpp070811.pdf (accessed June 15, 2017)
(xii) IARC (2016). IARC monograph 107. Polychlorinated and polybrominated biphenyls. http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol107/mono107.pdf (accessed June 15, 2017)
(xiii) Betts, K. S. (2015). Tracking Alternative Flame Retardants: Hand-to-Mouth Exposures in Adults. Environmental Health Perspectives 123(2): A44. http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/wp-content/uploads/123/2/ehp.123-A44.alt.pdf
(xiv) Leonetti, C et al. (2016). Brominated flame retardants in placental tissues: associations with infant sex and thyroid hormone endpoints. Environmental Health. 15(1):113. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27884139
(xv) Gosavi, R. A. et al. (2013). Mimicking of Estradiol Binding by Flame Retardants and Their Metabolites: A Crystallographic Analysis. Environmental Health Perspectives 121: 1194–1199. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23959441
(xvi) Gosavi, R. A. et al. (2013). ibid.
(xvii) Babrauskas, V. et al. (2011). Flame Retardants in Furniture Foam: Benefits and Risks. Fire Safety Science 10 265-278. http://www.iafss.org/publications/fss/10/265/
(xviii) Shaw, S. D. et al. (2010). Halogenated Flame Retardants: Do the Fire Safety Benefits Justify the Risks? Reviews on Environmental Health 25(4): 261-305. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21268442/
Page last update January 15, 2018