Have you ever wondered what may be in the puff of dust that comes off your couch when you sit on it? As the sun streams through your curtains to illuminate dust particles in the air – even wondered what is in that dust? Explore the world of flame retardants in this article with the Chemical Free Community team and you may just learn what is around you and on you.
Q1. What are flame retardants?
Flame retardants are compounds added to manufactured materials to inhibit, suppress, or delay the production of flames to prevent the spread of fire. They can be found in items such as plastics and textiles, and surface finishes and coatings. Brominated and chlorinated chemicals are added to products such as televisions, computers, textiles, building materials, infant car seats, and strollers, despite a lack of evidence that they actually prevent fires. They can also be found in clothing, so it is especially important to check the labels of garments to understand what is in, for example, your child’s clothing. To know what you are looking for, check out this great site for the definition of chemicals that are used as flame retardants.
Q2. Why are they harmful?
The understanding of the impacts of flame retardants has increased over the last decade. Exposure to such chemicals has been linked to real and measurable health impacts such as:
- Conception and pregnancy: – women with higher levels of flame retardants in their blood take longer to get pregnant and have smaller babies.
- Developmental challenges: – Children exposed to flame retardant chemicals through the womb have lower IQs and attention problems. Scientists have found that exposure to toxic flame retardant chemicals at critical points in development can damage the reproductive system and cause deficits in motor skills, learning, memory and behaviour.
- Defects: – Studies have linked flame retardants to male infertility, male birth defects, and early puberty in girls. Other studies in animals linked toxic flame retardants to autism and obesity.
Unlike some chemicals that we actively choose to use (e.g. pest sprays etc) the hidden danger of flame retardants, in couches or matting specifically, is that the chemicals do not stay in the furniture. They migrate out of the products and collect in indoor dust where they enter people’s bodies by being inhaled, ingested and touched. The impact of such toxins in the air was outlined very well in the documentary Toxic Hot Seat. It tracked the impact of flame retardants on fire fighters. These fire fighters, who already have a higher risk of certain cancers, are exposed to flame retardants in a fire, and the highly toxic by-products that result when the furniture burns.
Q3. Where do we find fire retardants?
Chemical fire retardants are common in consumer products. They are added to furniture containing polyurethane foam, including couches and upholstered chairs, futons and carpet padding. They can also be found in computers, televisions and other electronics spread through the home. The Environmental Working Group tests found much higher levels of both the flame retardant chemicals of PBDEs and TDCIPP in young children than in their mothers – likely because children frequently put their hands, toys and other objects in their mouths. As mentioned previously, flame retardants can migrate out of products and contaminate house dust, which accumulates on the floor where children play.
Q4. How do I avoid fire retardants?
To avoid flame retardants 100% of the time is almost impossible. There are some great techniques to reduce your likely exposure to them however. These would include:
- Do your homework. Before you buy a product check or ask about flame retardants, especially in children’s clothing. Although many companies say they have removed such chemicals – it is better to look, check and decide.
- Be conscious of what may be in your dust. Use a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter. These vacuums are more efficient at trapping small particles and will likely remove more contaminants and allergens from your home. High efficiency “HEPA-filter” air cleaners may also reduce contaminants bound to small particles. Also damp mop floors and damp dust furniture on a regular basis.
- Be conscious of your couch and what may be hiding there. If you’re buying a new couch or furniture choose one made without flame retardants. Contact the manufacturer to ask if their furniture contains these chemicals. If you are mending or refurbishing your couch, make sure you replace the foam too. And inspect your couch regularly for damage to the cushioning – as such holes or splits may be releasing greater amounts of toxins each time you seat on the furniture. Wash hands frequently, especially before eating. Don’t eat on your couch!
- Refurbishing generally. Be careful removing old carpeting. The padding is typically made of scrap foam that contains flame retardants. Old carpet padding can break down by the time it’s exposed for replacement. Isolate the work area from the rest of your home.
- With clothes – choose natural and check the labels. Choose naturally flame resistant fabrics such as wool, cotton or jute.
Q5. What should I be specifically worried about with my kids?
Some parents worry that flame retardants in children’s clothes and especially pyjamas will expose their children to these chemicals. Laws have changed regarding the use of flame retardants in children’s clothes, in sleep wear specifically but still, as a precaution, you might want to choose snug-fitting pyjamas made from natural fibres that are inherently fire resistant.
Remember that most fire related injuries occur not in bed but when kids get too close to heaters, fireplaces, candles, stoves, and other sources of flames. So, in those colder months, choose flame-retardant-free pyjamas but still make sure anything you dress them in fits snugly and exercise caution whenever such heat sources are present.
When considering children’s clothing consider these tips from green fashion guru and mom Jasmin Malik Chua, Managing Editor of Ecouterre.com (and reproduced from an article by Healthy Child, Healthy World :
Most people think that organic cotton is an agricultural choice. Choose it and you’re safeguarding the earth by keeping the synthetic chemicals needed to grow conventional cotton out of our ecosystem. “The fact that 1/3 a pound of pesticides is used to make one T-shirt is crazy,” says Chua. But by choosing it, you’re also safeguarding the health of the farmers who grow it. And your kids’ health, too. “On a personal scale you don’t want pesticides in contact with your body,” she explains. “But it’s not just pesticides; it’s the chemicals they use to treat the fabrics like flame retardants on polyester or formaldehyde used to keep clothes wrinkle free.” People sensitive to either can break out in a rash.
She considers hand-me-downs the most eco-friendly option. “Their impact has already come and gone. Kids wear clothes for 2 minutes then they outgrow them. Reusing what is already available is the greenest option.” If you don’t have access to hand-me-downs, try consignment stores for gently used or practically new items.
WASH THEN WEAR
Hand-me-downs aren’t always perfect. They often reek of perfume, detergent or dryer sheet residue, which can contain hormone disrupting chemicals. To get these scents out, Chua washes clothing multiple times. “You can soak them in baking soda or try putting a cup of vinegar or lemon juice in your washing machine.” And if you happen to get a load of stained items—or your kid stains them—look into textile recycling instead of sending them to a landfill.
“When I do buy new I try to buy organic cotton or quality clothes that last a while and aren’t disposable fashion,” says Chua. It can be hard to get grandparents who can’t resist buying new and decidedly unsustainable outfits to do the same. So Chua provides family members with an inclination to spoil her daughter with a list of brands creating durable fashion and heirloom pieces. On her list?
- Hannah Anderson (“so sturdy they last forever and have a lot of organic cotton choices”);
- Tea Collection (“not sustainable or organic but they last like 5 million washes and still look great”); and
- Tane Organics (“mostly for little babies—adorable knits that look incredibly classic and heirloom”), among others.
MAKE CLOTHES LAST
If you’re planning on having more than one kid, Chua suggests buying neutral colours. “I’m not into the whole pink girly girl thing,” she confesses. “I buy items that can be used for boys or girls. We have a boy cousin and we have pictures of the kids at the same age wearing the same thing.” Passing clothes on when your kid outgrows them is always a good thing. Chua’s daughter’s too-small stuff goes to a neighbour. “You feel good that someone else is wearing them,” she says.
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