In the 1970’s, the United States government implemented fire safety standards that now have manufacturers of many types of furnishings and household goods using toxic flame-retardant chemicals, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.
PBDEs are similar in chemical structure to PCBs, which were banned after they were found to be linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and impaired brain development in fetuses.
But PBDEs are now being used prevalently by manufacturers of many products, including polyurethane foams for furniture; mattresses; plastics for television cabinets, computers, electronics and small appliances; wire insulation; carpeting; as coatings for draperies and upholstery — and on baby
Fire retardants help slow down flame ignition and the rate of flame growth. But since their chemical components are not bound to the materials to which they’re applied, these chemicals can easily be distributed through the home, winding up in household dust, and even on our clothing and on our hands, after we handle products that contain these chemicals.
Not only are most of us being exposed to PBDEs, which are increasingly being found to be toxic, these chemicals are also contaminating the air, soil, waterways, and landfills.
What was initially meant to help insure public safety, has now become a source of great concern for doctors, environmental scientists, and consumers:
As many as 97 percent of all Americans have significant levels of PBDEs in their blood. This includes most children and many newborn babies! A typical American baby is born with the highest concentrations of fire retardants in their blood among babies born in the entire world!
PBDEs have been found to disrupt the human body’s hormone-releasing mechanisms, and they are also believed to damage brain processes that affect learning and memory. A recent study by the University of California, Berkeley, found that exposure to these chemicals in unborn babies, and in childhood, was associated with diminished attention, fine motor coordination, and cognition in school-age children. Higher exposure to these chemicals in adults was linked to decreased fertility. They are also believed to be toxic to the liver and thyroid gland.
Previous studies found PBDEs in human breast milk. And while babies and children are among those most at risk for PBDEs’ ability to disrupt and harm development, products for babies and children are also the most likely to contain these chemicals!
The Ecology Center found PBDEs in 60 percent of car seats made in 2011 that were tested. And a study recently published in Environmental Science and Technology detected PBDEs in 80 percent of strollers, high chairs, changing table pads, and walkers that it tested.
A Renowned Surgeon and College Professor Lied to State of California to Get PBDEs into Baby and Children’s Products
Recent increased use of toxic fire retardant chemicals in baby and children’s products was partly the result of false statements that a renowned college professor and burn expert gave to California and Alaska lawmakers in 2011.
Dr. David Heimbach, a former surgery professor at the University of Washington, and burn expert, testified before lawmakers about babies who had been burned to death while sleeping on mattresses that did not have flame retardants.
Gripped by the doctor’s touching testimony, lawmakers authorized the increased use of flame retardants — despite voiced concerns from doctors, environmentalists, and even firefighters.
Later, it was uncovered that Dr. Heimbach’s testimony had been made up! The babies he focused on, who had presumably been burned to death, had never existed.
Dr. Heimbach turned out to be a paid consultant for the Citizens for Fire Safety — which was found to be nothing more than a front group for companies that made flame retardants (and which now no longer exists).
A spokeswoman at the University of Washington told the Chicago Tribune reporter who broke the story that the university was “very disappointed” in Dr. Heimbach’s actions. However, the doctor was not disciplined in any manner because by the time the story appeared in the Tribune and other newspapers, the doctor had already retired.
The fire retardant industry has essentially overstated the benefits of fire retardants going back decades now, even forming the phony “watchdog” group that campaigned for the use of these chemicals.
What Can You Do to Decrease Exposure to PBDEs in Your Household?
California Governor Jerry Brown promised in June 2012 to reform the state’s stringent furniture flammability standards (these standards resulted in the increased use of flame retardants nationwide). California’s standard could be revised by the summer of 2013.
But until standards are modified, here are a few important ways to minimize household exposure to PBDEs for you and your children:
- Because flame-retardant chemicals settle in dust particles, dust your home frequently. Vacuum often, and mop hard surfaces often, too. Be especially vigilant to eliminate dust as much as possible if you have a baby or toddler who plays on the floor a lot: toddlers who play on the floor and put things in their mouths often have greater levels of PBDEs in their bodies!
- Wash your hands and your children’s hands after handling electronics, especially before eating.
- Buy organic baby items and mattresses, as well as organic building materials, including carpeting. Some manufacturers also now offer products labeled “flame retardant-free.”
By Jamell Andrews