Flame Retardants Are Everywhere, Seriously Hurting Us, Not Helping

When I was a kid and you went near a flame with your pajamas, you were, well. toast.

But now it's turning out that the flame retardants put in everything from pajamas to furniture to the very ice floes penguins stand on in the Arctic, are so toxic -- and everywhere -- they may give us all cancer.

According to Deborah Blum at The New York Times, scientists are now finding traces of these chemicals in breast milk. It appeared that the compounds were carried into the milk from fat in the mothers’ bodies.

“The route wasn’t a surprise,” she quotes Dr. Arnold Schecter, a public health researcher and a professor of environmental health at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas. Breast milk is rich in fat, and the compounds he was looking at linger in fat. 

How did they get into women’s bodies in the first place?  Flame retardants are now in butter and peanut butter, bacon, salmon, chili with beans, sliced lunch meat and more. 

They are present in tiny amounts, Blum notes he emphasized. "But that they are there at all raises questions that researchers find increasingly troubling. If flame retardants can be found even in peanut butter, then where else have they spread? And what health risks come with them?" she writes.

Flame retardants are a family of chemical compounds that reduce flammability or inhibit the spread of fire in a range of ways — from interfering with fire’s ability to consume oxygen, to forming a barrier, to acting as chemical coolants. Use of the chemicals rose greatly in the 1970s, as manufacturers increasingly put fast-burning synthetic materials and plastics in their products, according to Blum. Today, about 1.5 million tons of these compounds are used globally every year, she adds.

Various formulas of flame retardants cause ill effects, ranging from the fairly benign, to suspected carcinogens. "Some appear to interfere with the normal operation of hormones, notably thyroid hormones, while some appear to affect brain development," she reports. 

And here's the really scary part. “We’re exposed in every known environment,” Heather Stapleton, an associate professor of environmental sciences at Duke who has been studying flame retardants for 15 years, tells Blum.

Flame retardants have been found in Antarctic penguins and Arctic orcas; in North American kestrels and barn owls; in bird eggs in Spain, fish in Canada and, indirectly, in bees — honey from Brazil, Morocco, Spain and Portugal has been found tainted with flame retardants

These chemicals also have been discovered in homes and offices, subways and trains, cars and airplanes. Dr. Stapleton worked on a recent study showing that airplane cabins contain startlingly high levels, leaching from seats, bins and even that curtain dividing first and coach class. She has found the compounds in baby products. Recently she published a study examining flame retardants in tents

Human activities help spread the flame retardants, Blum notes, but the larger drift of them across the planet derives from their longtime use in homes and businesses. "The compounds are often sprayed into fabrics and foams used in furniture, bedding and clothing, rather than chemically bonded to the material. So they are gradually shed. Often they attach to dust particles, which not only settle onto floors and shelves, but also waft outside through open doors and windows and air-conditioning systems," she adds. 

Once outside, they can be transported anywhere by water and winds. “We know this from other long-lasting materials, like DDT,” Dr. Stapleton tells Blum. “It’s called the grasshopper effect.”

Of course, not all of it hops away — plenty stays right in the room. A 2012 study concluded that most American households contain dust tainted by flame retardants. A recent survey of 40 day care centers in California found a wide range of flame retardants in every one of the dust samples, according to Blum. 

The dust may be especially risky for young children, because they crawl on the floors and often put their hands in their mouths, said the study’s lead author, Asa Bradman, an associate director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California, Berkeley. It doesn’t surprise him that the chemicals turn up in the children themselves. 

Those most at risk?  Children who mostly play inside.

 So what can we do?  Not much. Blum says Dr. Bradman recommends frequent hand washing and vacuuming, particularly in environments in which children may be exposed. He also suggests looking for products labeled as free of flame retardants.  And pretty much, pray.


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