Flame Retardants: A Safety Perk Or Health Hazard?

Phosmet organophosphate insecticide molecule. Atoms are represented as spheres with conventional color coding: hydrogen (white), carbon (grey), nitrogen (blue), oxygen (red), sulfur (yellow), phosphorus (orange).

Since they made their first tentative forays into the textile world in the 1970’s, flame-retardants have become so common they are almost implicit. We rarely see ‘low fire danger’ tags announcing the presence of this chemical cocktail. Rather, we see tags announcing ‘high fire danger.’ What would you rather buy to put on yourself or your child? It’s an obvious choice, that is, until you know what studies are beginning to reveal. It turns out flame-retardants might not be so innocuous, especially for children and babies.

Flame-retardants are in our upholstery, electronics, soft furnishings, mattresses, car seats and even clothes. Rather than being bound in the material, most flame-retardants are added to the products, which allows them to be released into indoor environments [1]. This is where our kiddies are likely to be exposed, and the research doesn’t have good things to say about what happens then.

Most recently, a pilot study emerging from Oregon State University found, “a significant relationship between social behaviours among children and their exposure to widely used flame-retardants [1].”

The researchers observed that children with higher levels of exposure to certain types of flame retardants (including the organophosphate class) were more likely to exhibit behavioural problems like aggression, defiance, hyperactivity, inattention and bullying [2].


This study adds to previous research, which linked flame retardants to poorer cognitive function in children. These effects included lower intelligence and hyperactivity [3]. That study looked at polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). The lead author, Aimin Chen (MD, PhD), remarked that:

“In animal studies, PBDEs can disrupt thyroid hormone and cause hyperactivity and learning problems. Our study adds to several other human studies to highlight the need to reduce exposure to PBDEs in pregnant women [3].”

The effect wasn’t a short one either. Chen’s study found that maternal exposure to PBDEs was, “associated with deficits in child cognition at age 5 years and hyperactivity at age 2-5 years [3].” Furthermore, a study from the University of Texas’s Medical Branch collected and analysed blood samples from pregnant women when they were admitted for labor and delivery. They found that “maternal exposure to high levels of flame-retardants may be a contributing factor in preterm births [4].”

Some leading voices in health are calling this out as a major concern, and not just for children and babies. “The two most commonly used organophosphates, TDCIPP and TPHP, have risen steadily in urine samples collected between 2002 and 2015. Experts say the reason this is an issue is because these substances cause not just cancer, but fertility problems, hormonal changes, thyroid regulation, neurological disorders and endocrine disruption [5].” A concerning list indeed. Mercola goes on to explain that these chemicals can be “breathed in, swallowed and absorbed through your skin, and accumulate in your fatty tissue [5].”

What can we do about it? The best move is likely to be making informed purchasing choices, especially when it comes to furniture and baby products. There are suggestions that keeping your environment as dust-free as possible may lead to lower levels of exposure. Air purifiers may assist this process too [5].

When added to information we now have about the impact of herbicides and pesticides on the human gut microbiome, these studies provide interesting insight into what happens when we try to improve on nature. We might not be able to completely avoid the chemical stressors that exist in our environment, but we can make conscious, informed choices that can minimize their impact on us.



[1] Oregon State University. “Flame retardant chemicals may affect social behavior in young children.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 March 2017. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170309141306.htm

[2] Shannon T. Lipscomb, Megan M. McClelland, Megan MacDonald, Andres Cardenas, Kim A. Anderson, Molly L. Kile. Cross-sectional study of social behaviors in preschool children and exposure to flame retardants. Environmental Health, 2017; 16 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s12940-017-0224-6

[3] American Academy of Pediatrics. “Flame retardants, used in everyday products, may be toxic to children: Lower intelligence, hyperactivity seen.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 May 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130506095403.htm

[4] University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. “Flame retardants linked to preterm birth.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 January 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150128152159.htm

[5] Mercola, J, 2017), “Most people are now flame retardants,” Mercola, http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2017/03/01/flame-retardant-organophosphates-peoples-urine.aspx retrieved 9 March 2017

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