The Most Common Fire Retardants, Part 1: Brominated

We recently introduced a new series investigating flame retardant chemicals and today we’re looking at the most common group of flame retardants used in the United States.

We recently introduced a new series investigating flame retardant chemicals and today we're looking at the most common group of flame retardants used in the United States.  While it may be impossible to avoid these chemicals completely, our future health depends on our ability to maneuver around this complex topic with confidence, making safer choices for our families.

Brominated Flame Retardants (BFR)

BFR's  are organic compounds that contain carbon bonded to bromine that have an inhibitory effect on the ignition of combustible organic materials. Of the commercialized chemical flame retardants, the brominated type are most widely used in the United States. They are effective in plastics and textile applications, such as electronics, clothes and furniture as a means of reducing the flammability by slowing down the initial burn rate.  Several BFR's are structurally similar to polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), and consequently may affect the body in similar ways. PCB’s were banned from use in US in 1976 and it looks as though BFR's may become the modern successor to PCB's.

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE), the Most Common Brominated Flame Retardants

The brominated fire retardants known as PBDEs are the most widely used in North America. They are extremely similar to PCB's,  which made a quick jump to the lime light when millions of pounds were released into the environment. PCB's were found to cause immune suppression, altered sexual development, cancer, delayed brain development, lower IQ, and behavioral problems like hyperactivity in humans. As with PCBs, exposure to PBDEs may be particularly harmful during a critical window of brain development during pregnancy and early childhood. In the 26 years since the ban, numerous studies have documented permanent, neurological impairment to children from low level PCB exposure.

PBDE's are Found in a Surprising Number of Everyday Products

The Environmental Working Group published a helpful chart that gives us a clear picture of what we're looking for and where.  They reported that current research has shown that PBDE's are growing exponentially in the environment, showing up in tissue samples of harbor seals, San Francisco Bay fish and, more alarmingly, in breast milk of nursing mothers.

Materials used in Types of PBDEs used Examples of consumer products
Plastics Deca, Octa, Penta Computers, televisions, hair dryers, curling irons, copy machines, fax machines, printers, coffee makers, plastic automotive parts, lighting panels, PVC wire and cables, electrical connectors, fuses, housings, boxes and switches, lamp sockets, waste-water pipes, underground junction boxes, circuit boards, smoke detectors
Textiles Deca, Penta Back coatings and impregnation of home and office furniture, industrial drapes, carpets, automotive seating, aircraft and train seating
Polyurethane foam Penta Home and office furniture (couches and chairs, carpet padding, mattresses and mattress pads) automobile, bus, plane and train seating, sound insulation panels, imitation wood, packaging materials
Rubber Deca, Penta Conveyor belts, foamed pipes for insulation, rubber cables
Paints and lacquers Deca, Penta Marine and industry protective lacquers and paints


Stay Tuned for More in this Series

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