Green Living experts Ron and Lisa Beres joined Andrea Donsky and Lisa Davis on Naturally Savvy Radio to discuss flame retardants and how they may be causing you harm. [The following transcript has been edited for print.]
Lisa Davis: I remember last year my young daughter came home from school and was really excited because she learned all about fire safety. Fire safety is something that we have to keep in mind, although sometimes things can go a little too far when we talk about flame retardants. Is the truth too hot to handle? Lisa and Ron Beres are going to give us the scoop on flame retardants and our health.
Lisa Beres: Boy, oh boy. They sound good in theory: obviously we all want to protect our loved ones, our homes and ourselves, but flame retardants have really gotten out of control. There is a class of chemicals called brominated flame retardants that had been added for eons to household products. They're made to inhibit ignition and slow the rate of combustion and ideally reduce the risk of household fires – but they have a very sinister effect on our health.
They're made since certain materials are naturally flammable, but these flame retardant chemicals can impact the developing brain and have a host of negative health consequences. We are subjected to them constantly since they are in so many household products, permeating our homes. They're in furniture, they're in mattresses, they're in car seats and a lot of strollers, and other children's products. They're even in electronics and the cases of cell phones and computers. We are immensely exposed to these chemicals.
They can alter children's brain development and cause learning and behavioral problems, which are immensely on the rise right now and we're just seeing so much of. What's really scary is children have a higher level of these chemicals in their bodies than adults. EWG (Environmental Working Group) and Duke University just did a really large study on a chemical called TDCPP otherwise known as Chlorinated Tris. This is a chemical that was being used to replace brominated flame retardants, and they found that every single toddler tested in the study had five times the average of flame retardant chemicals in their bodies than their mothers. In the most extreme case the child had 23 times higher levels than the mother.
What happened with legislation was this class of brominated flame retardants were just wreaking havoc on health that two of them were phased out and then just a couple of years ago they started phasing out the other one, the "deca-" – there's "penta-", "octa-" and "deca-" – and they started replacing them with chemicals that were supposed to be healthier. But as we're finding out this is not the case, as happens in so many cases, like BPA and their replacement chemicals which are turning out to be just as bad. Unfortunately, consumers really get bamboozled when they see tags saying, "BPA free" or "free of a particular chemical". They think it's safe and don't realize, "wait a minute, what are they replacing this chemical with?" It's really scary and we have to remember "buyer beware."
Andrea Donsky: I totally agree. I remember I went to my chiropractor many years ago when I was having trouble with my neck and I wanted a special pillow. He provided one, and I brought it home and I remember it stank! This was when I was just starting to get interested in natural health, and I just could not get over the smell. I brought it back and I told him I couldn't sleep on it, this thing has the worst odor. I found out that it was flame retardants in the pillow that were the cause of the sickening smell.
I have two questions: Other than odor, are there ways to tell that a product has flame retardants? And, what's the legislation on flame retardants in products that people are buying now?
Lisa Beres: Mattresses, up until this point, were required by law throughout the United States to have flame retardants. Every mattress, every crib mattress used to have to meet standards on an open flame torch test to see how long it would take the mattress to ignite. They would put in very toxic flame retardant chemicals to meet the standards. Children and adults are being exposed to these chemicals night after night. The only way you could get around this was to get an organic mattress that use wool or another natural flame retardant. That was the only legal way you could get around it because those will still meet the standard. But now there's a new law that's coming into effect and Ron will elaborate on the new legislation that just got passed.
Ron Beres: Great news. This new law was passed in California, but California law is basically the de facto national standard for furniture. Starting this year in January, furniture makers are able to sell furniture under a new open flame test that's in place. Before it was very difficult to get natural materials that live up to that standard because they would flame quickly. But now in place is a smolder test which allows for the use of materials that are of natural origin and don't use flame retardant chemicals.
Lisa Beres: Even though the tag will say, "This has met the flammability standards" they don't, by law have to tell you what they used. So that's where consumers are saying, "wait a minute, what was used here?" But they don't have to tell you. The best way therefore, to avoid all flame retardant chemicals is to stick with natural materials. This new law went into effect just this January and manufacturers have one year to comply, so January of next year new upholstery will not be required by law to have those harmful chemicals. Now, that doesn't mean most companies are going to stop using them, but it allows for more manufacturers to meet flame retardant standards with natural products.
Ron Beres: Let me give you some tips on how to reduce your exposure.
#1: Replace your mattress and pillows with certified organic materials like Lisa eluded to. Wool is a natural flame retardant so that is always a safe bet.
#2: Cover or replace the foam seats in your car. If anything of these materials are exposed you really want to make sure that you cover them because it's the breakdown of that material that leaks out the chemicals.
#3: Minimize your exposure to electronics cases. That's our cell phones, TV controllers, etc. You want to cover those or look for cases made from natural materials.
#4: Wash your hands as frequently as possible. I know this can sound paranoid but polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs-the class of flame retardtants that we're talking about) breakdown. We touch our hands to our mouth; it's in household dust. We want to make sure we're washing our hands to reduce direct exposure.
Lisa Beres: These chemicals are semi-volatile so they actually get into the air. You don't really think about that, but they circulate in indoor air. That's why kids are so vulnerable: they've got their hands on the floor, they're playing on the floor, then they put their hands in their mouths. Wet mopping and damp dusting is a good household rule of thumb to really tackle dust, and not just spread it around. Even the EPA recommends using HEPA filtration on your vacuum, and of course it's great as air purifier for your home as well.
Andrea Donsky: Ron, could you finish up with a final tip?
Ron Beres: Sure!
#5: Avoid high fat foods. I know we don't want to, but unfortunately they're the richest in HBCD flame-retardants. These are fat-binding chemicals,which bind to our body fat and can exist in our bodies for years. Avoid high fat foods that might trap in these chemicals in our bodies which we definitely don't want.
If you would like more Green Living advice from Ron and Lisa, visit RonandLisa.com and follow them on Twitter @RonandLisa.