About PBDEs
How am I exposed?
Why should I be concerned?
What can government and industry do?
How can I reduce exposure?


About PBDEs

PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are industrial toxic flame retardant chemicals used in consumer electronics, furniture, and mattresses. PBDEs are no longer produced in the U.S. but are still present in many items in our homes and elsewhere.

There are three common mixtures of these chemicals—penta, octa, and deca.

  • Penta and octa are no longer produced in the U.S., but millions of pounds remain in homes, offices, and the environment due to extensive use in consumer products.
  • Deca is still used widely, with about 50 million pounds a year in the U.S. used primarily in television casings. Deca is also approved for use in residential upholstered furniture and mattresses to meet flame retardant standards.
  • Deca has been shown to break down into penta and octa.

How am I exposed?

PBDEs have been widely detected in house dust as well as indoor air because they migrate out of products like furniture and electronics in our homes. Studies in the U.S., Europe, and Asia have found PBDEs in fish, meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and infant formula.

Why should I be concerned?

  • PBDEs are in blood, breastmilk, and umbilical cord blood.
  • Laboratory animals exposed to PBDEs show deficits in learning and memory.
  • Children with higher prenatal exposure to PBDEs have been found in several studies to have lower IQ. Exposure has also been linked to hyperactivity, poor attention, and slower motor development.
  • PBDEs affect thyroid hormone levels in laboratory animals.

What can government and industry do?

There are three common mixtures of these chemicals—penta, octa, and deca.

  • Penta- and octa-BDEs were the first to be phased out, with penta the form widely used in foam for furniture and children’s products.
  • Deca-BDE, previously the dominant flame retardant in television enclosures and also used on textiles, was phased out by industry after several states, including Washington, passed bans. There is no prohibition on articles containing deca coming into the U.S., though they are prohibited for sale in states with bans.

Twelve U.S. states have passed legislation to ban penta- and octa-BDEs, and four of them also banned deca-BDE.In December 2009, the only two U.S. makers of deca-BDE and its largest importer voluntarily agreed to stop producing and importing Deca for most uses by 2011, and to stop producing and importing the chemical for all uses by 2013. Despite the voluntary phaseout, a national ban is still needed to ensure the agreement is enforceable and any chemical flame retardant substitutes are safer.

How can I reduce exposure?

Make sure furniture is PBDE-free. If you already own furniture that contains PBDEs, consider replacing it. Thanks to California law, most furniture is now labeled regarding flame-retardant content. Check the labels when you shop:

  • If the label says “CONTAINS NO ADDED FLAME RETARDANTS” that means it’s free of flame retardants.
  • If label is marked with “CONTAINS ADDED FLAME RETARDANTS” that means it contains flame retardants.
  • If the label says the product meets TB117 standards and has no additional information, it meets an outdated standard and is likely to contain flame retardants.

Reduce dust exposure by taking the following steps:

If you cannot find information on whether a manufacturer uses PBDEs, contact the company directly.

  • Wash hands, especially those of little children, often, to keep dust from attaching to food or fingers and being consumed
  • Regularly use a wet mop to clean and remove dust particles and to keep them from being inhaled or ingested
  • Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to clean your home

Avoid farmed fish. European and U.S. farmed salmon have particularly high levels of PBDEs. Choose wild salmon instead.

Reduce animal fats. Choose lean meat and poultry cuts and low-fat dairy products. Cut visible fat off meat and poultry before cooking, and choose lower-fat cooking methods, such as broiling, grilling, roasting, or pressure-cooking.

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