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Scientists Tackle the Next Generation of Toxic Flame Retardants

Ever wonder what taxi drivers and pregnant women have in common? Both were the subjects of fascinating research discussed at the Brominated Flame Retardant (BFR) conference in York, England last month, where I had the good fortune to be present. Disturbingly, new research is showing that increased use of a new generation of flame retardants is serious cause for concern.

I wasn’t at the first Brominated Flame Retardant (BFR) conference, but it took place somewhere around fifteen years ago, when scientists were becoming alarmed about the rapidly increasing levels of the toxic brominated flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Since that time, scientists from all over the world have been coming together every other year to share their findings on where flame retardants are being found, how they are behaving, and what their effects are on people and wildlife.

What was remarkable this year was the extent to which the topic has expanded from the old standards—brominated flame retardants—to the newly popular classes of flame retardants such as the organophosphates. Some of the most commonly used flame retardants are still those belonging to the brominated class, but scientists are finding high levels of exposure and serious questions about the safety of the other compounds as well.

Here are some highlights from the conference:

  • Chinese researcher Xiaotu Liu wondered how exposures in a car would compare to those in an office, so Xiaotu and colleagues sampled dust in taxis and offices, and took hand wipes of drivers and workers. They found that dust was dominated by organophosphate flame retardants, and that taxi drivers hands had ten to twenty times the levels found in office workers.
  • Duke University researchers were interested in whether there was a relationship between preterm birth and exposure to organophosphate flame retardants. They collected urine samples from 349 pregnant women in North Carolina, and found that births of girls were an average of a week early when women had high exposure to a common organophosphate flame retardant.
  • McGill graduate student Han Yan used a fluorescent staining system to be able to see whether flame retardants affected bone development in mice. She found severe restriction of bone development after exposure to certain organophosphate flame retardants at levels similar to those experienced by the most-exposed Americans.
  • Chilean researcher Karla Pozo took air samples during and after a fire in Santiago, Chile. She found air levels of PBDE flame retardants were four times higher during the fire, suggesting they are released from products as they burn.

While we raise the alarm that these newer flame retardants may in some ways be worse than PBDEs, we look to policymakers and companies to address this health threat. Manufacturers must carefully assess the chemicals they are using, choosing materials that don’t need toxic chemicals to function properly, and retailers should require safer products for their stores. Policymakers must pass laws to reduce and eliminate the use of harmful flame retardants in products. It’s up to all of us to demand these changes.