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Grey Sofa

Flame Retardants

Flame retardant chemicals, sometimes called “halogenated" or "brominated flame retardants, ” or PBDEs (which stands for polybrominated diphenyl ethers) commonly used in furniture, mattresses and electronics. permeate our homes, schools and work environments.  These chemicals have been used for decades and found in thousands of consumer products Because they are not chemically bound to the plastics, foam, fabrics and other products in which they are used, they leach out of these items, accumulating in the environment, in our food supplies, and in our bodies.

Through inhalation and ingestion, PBDEs accumulate in human blood, breast milk and umbilical cord fluid. Studies show that they can disrupt the endocrine system and possibly cause adverse neuro-developmental effects in young children. For example, a recent study demonstrated that children with higher concentrations of PBDEs in their umbilical cord fluid at birth under-performed on tests of mental and physical development from the ages of one to six years old.


Not only are exposures risky during pregnancy, but studies also show that women with high levels of PBDEs in their bodies may have difficulty conceiving.

Fast Facts
  • Flame retardant chemicals (PBDEs)  can be found in thousands of consumer products including furniture and electronics.


  • PBDEs are not chemically bound to the products in which they are used and can leach out into the environment around them.


  • Through inhalation and ingestion, PBDEs accumulate in human blood, breast milk and umbilical cord fluid.

The main source of exposure to PBDE seems to be from foam cushions in furniture and bedding that has been impregnated with flame-retardant chemicals. Over time, as furniture is used and the foam begins to break down, PBDE is released into the air where it accumulates on surfaces and in house dust. Children who play on floors have increased exposure.


The regulation of PBDE has largely been left with individual states, and the results have been a patchwork of conflicting regulations. The state of California actually mandates that furniture sold in the state must contain PBDE, while states like Washington, Maine and Vermont have banned all forms of PBDE. This wide discrepancy in government oversight leads to extremely disparate levels of exposure among people around the United States.


It’s very difficult to purchase PBDE-free furniture and electronics for two reasons. First, manufacturers are not required to disclose the presence of PBDEs in their products, and second, California’s PBDE mandate and its large consumer market mean that most products are manufactured to that standard. While you can avoid any product that claims to meet California standards for fire safety standards, this is no guarantee that the product does not contain PBDE.


Older furniture that may contain PBDEs should be discarded when foam begins to break down or leak from tears and split seams. It is best to cover foam portions with barriers to contain dust and particles. Frequent dusting and cleaning can keep PBDEs from accumulating on surfaces around your home or workplace.

Flame Retardants Resources
Print Material
Web Resources 
  • Dr. Arlene Blum of the Green Policy Institute has been leading the charge on this issue for years with outstanding success. Check out the website of her organization and our Green Street interview with Dr. Blum below. 

Related Podcasts from Green Street

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