Flame Retardants These toxic chemicals were intended to prevent fires, but are now increasing the risk of cancer.

The Problem

Toxic chemicals known to cause cancer and other health effects are prevalent as flame retardants in standard household items like couches and carpet, as well as in firefighter uniforms. In past decades, many states mandated that manufacturers incorporate these chemicals into consumer products. These policies were enacted before scientists were able to determine the effects of these chemicals on health, and often with the strong support of the chemical and tobacco industries. Today, new research has called into question both the effectiveness of these chemicals–such as chlorinated tris and polybrominated diphenyl (PBDE)–and the associated health risk to consumers and firefighters.

California’s 1975 flammability standard led to manufacturers adding flame retardant chemicals to products nationwide. This standard has since been repealed and manufacturers can attain safe conditions without the use of these chemicals, and several, including Steelcase, Herman Miller, Knoll and Haworth, are voluntarily removing them from their products. You can find out more about safer alternatives that still meet fire safety standards here

Panelists at NCEL's National Issues Forum discussing chemical policy
Panelists at NCEL’s National Issues Forum discussing chemical policy

Fast Facts

Chemical flame retardants are widely used in children’s products, and children can have up to five times higher levels of chemicals in their bodies than their mothers. These chemicals pose health risks including learning disabilities and developmental impairment. (Environmental Working Group)

Manufacturers can attain safe conditions without the use of these chemicals, and safer alternatives exist that still meet fire safety standards. (EPA

Flame retardants put firefighters at higher risk for certain cancers, including 62% higher rates of esophageal cancer than the general public. The toxic smoke created by the burning of these chemicals can penetrate protective gear. (Marine & Environmental Research Institute)

Chemicals, such as PBDEs, integrate into dust around homes, and leech into the environment where they become harmful to wildlife populations such as eagles. (Michigan Radio)


  • Several states have introduced targeted legislation to ban children’s products and upholstered furniture containing chlorinated Tris flame retardants including Delaware, Massachusetts,  Rhode Island and Washington.  
  • Legislation to establish a list of chemicals of high concern, require manufacturer disclosure and eventual removal has been introduced in Oregon and New York
  • A comprehensive list of legislation regarding flame retardants is available here

Science and Reports

NYC toddlers exposed to potentially harmful flame retardants -- Emerging Contaminants, 2017

New research found potentially harmful flame retardants on the hands and in the homes of 100% of a sample of New York City mothers and toddlers. The study also found that on average toddlers in New York City had higher levels of common flame-retardants on their hands compared to their mothers.The study is the first comparison of PBDEs, TBB, and TBPH in house dust and handwipe samples from maternal-child pairs.

Flame Retardants Linked to Lower Birthweight Babies -- American Journal of Epidemiology, 2011 

Researchers found that every tenfold increase in levels of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) in a mother’s blood during pregnancy corresponded to a 115 gram (4.1 ounce) drop in her baby’s birthweight. While the majority of the babies in the study were not classified as “low birthweight,” the decline in weight could put smaller babies at risk in the future.

Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in Their Food -- Environmental Science & Technology, 2011 

Researchers found high levels of toxic flame retardant chemicals in the blood of pet dogs, with concentrations five to 10 times higher than in humans. Previous studies have found even higher levels in cats, and scientists hope to use dogs as a proxy for monitoring human exposure to these harmful chemicals.

 PBDE Concentrations in Women's Serum and Fecundability -- Environmental Health Perspectives, 2010 

This study investigated the impact of widespread polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants on pregnancy time and menstrual cycle characteristics. The results showed PBDE exposure resulted in longer time to pregnancy, and was one of the first to look directly at effects on human fertility.

Prenatal Exposure to PBDEs and Neurodevelopment -- Environmental Health Perspectives, 2010 

This study analyzed whether polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)–a widely used flame retardant–impact neurodevelopment in children. Researchers found that children with high concentrations of PBDEs scored lower on tests of mental and physical development.

National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals -- Center for Disease Control, 2009

This report is the fourth in an ongoing assessment of toxic chemicals to which the U.S. population is exposed. The report presents exposure data for 212 chemicals, including 75 chemicals being measured for the first time in the U.S.


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