Toxic Flame Retardants - New Data, More Warnings, Take Action

Bill Walsh | June 16, 2011 | Materials

Last Friday, June 10th, while attending BFR 2011: The 12th Workshop on Brominated and other Flame Retardants at Boston University, I learned that the National Toxicology Program upgraded its classification of formaldehyde to "Known to be a human carcinogen."[1] Formaldehyde was classified as "Reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" thirty years ago, in 1981. The wheels of science grind slowly.

Many building products and furnishings are made with formaldehyde, and many such as carpets, furniture and foam insulation are made with brominated flame retardants. Some contain both. Research on flame retardants has a long way to go before we have volumes of studies to rival those that support the definitive statement on formaldehyde. But the thirty scientific papers[2] presented in Boston last week suggest we are fools to wait another 30 years to take action in the face of mounting evidence of hazard from this highly toxic class of chemicals.[3]

A team from the University of Toronto, host city for Greenbuild 2011, demonstrated a relationship between sources of one brominated compound used in products and the concentrations and transport pathways by which they enter Lake Ontario, Toronto's only source of drinking water. Other research teams found elevated levels of these chemicals in office air, dust, and surfaces wipes, and in the foam and dust of gymnastics training facilities.

A Duke University led team discovered that more than 80% of the baby products they tested contained a known and identifiable flame retardant chemical, including chemicals banned from use. That study concluded that: "More research is needed to evaluate the exposure infants are receiving from close contact with these products." No doubt.

Notwithstanding the need for more research on how a child gets exposed to toxic chemicals while in bed or at gymnastics class, one study did document the chemicals in blood serum of Texas hospital children from birth through age 12. A different study documented emerging levels of flame retardants in children from birth to age 9, raising questions about whether high spikes of the chemicals in toddlers could be related to their presence in the carpets on which the kids crawl, or say, the mattresses upon which they sleep. Still another correlated children's exposure to flame retardants with social/economic status. Guess what - poor kids get higher doses. And while one group of researchers examined ways to predict the presence of flame retardants in human breast milk from Boston mothers, an unrelated study found evidence to support "an association between early life... exposure through breast milk and increased impulsivity in childhood."

These studies were presented with many of the familiar caveats: limited sample size, preliminary findings, more research needed, more funding for research needed. But we can learn from the lessons of the past, and should be doing all we can to reduce human exposures to these avoidable toxic hazards while the studies continue.

As a green building professional, you can reduce and sometimes eliminate these chemicals from green buildings with careful materials selection. LEED Pilot Credit 11 offers incentives to LEED project teams to do so, and the easiest way to obtain these credits, with just a few keystrokes, is by using the online Pharos Building Product Library. Subscribers can use filters to search the Pharos database for products that qualify for this new credit, and for those which have no added formaldehyde as well.


[1] Also, for the first time the NTP included styrene on the list of chemicals linked to cancer, classifying it as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

[2] Title, authors and abstracts for all of the studies referenced in this article, and all other BFR 2011 presentations, can be found at:

[3] Brominated flame retardants are one type of chemical added to building materials to reduce flammability. They are persistent and bio-accumulative endocrine disrupting chemicals, and are associated with numerous health impacts including reproductive, thyroid, developmental and neurological disorders including decreased fertility, and birth defects.