The detection of the older class of flame retardants was more surprising. In the 1970s, UC Berkeley work by Arlene Blum, a postdoctoral researcher at the time, and Bruce Ames, UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology, showed that brominated and chlorinated tris were mutagens and presumed carcinogens. That work helped lead to the chemicals’ removal from children’s sleepwear.
“I remember learning about the tris phosphate flame retardants in kids’ pajamas when I was in high school 35 years ago, so it’s a bit surprising to still be seeing them today,” said Bradman. “They were never banned. There seems to have been a resurgence in recent years as manufacturers looked for PBDE replacements.”
Earlier this year, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control identified children’s foam sleeping pads containing flame retardants as one of three products considered harmful to consumers. Agency officials specifically cited nap mats, bassinets and infant travel beds as items that commonly contain chlorinated tris phosphate, a carcinogen and hormone-disrupter.
Change in flammability standards could mean fewer chemicals
New changes in state flammability standards may soon eliminate the need to use those chemical replacements. Previous regulations required the foam in consumer items to withstand a small open flame for 12 seconds without igniting.
Blum, now executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a UC Berkeley visiting scholar in chemistry, noted that the old standard, known as TB117, did not help fire safety since it is the fabric covering the foam that needs to be fire resistant. The standard, she noted, had led to the extensive use of flame retardants in furniture and foam baby products without providing a fire safety benefit.
Gov. Jerry Brown, presented with evidence that the flame retardant chemicals are linked to health concerns, ordered an update to the state flammability standard. The new regulation, TB117-2013, requires fabrics of upholstered furniture to withstand smolders, such as from lit cigarettes. It takes effect this year, and will be mandatory by January 2015.
“The new standard is not a ban on flame retardants, but manufacturers can meet it without using the chemicals,” said Blum, who is not an author on the current study. “Most upholstered fabrics, such as leather, are already smolder-proof. Consumers should verify that the furniture they are buying is free of flame retardants, especially when children will be exposed.”
Other co-authors of the study include researchers from the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the California Air Resources Board.
- Flame retardants linked to neurodevelopmental delays in children (UC Berkeley press release)
- Toxic flame retardants found in many foam baby products (UC Berkeley press release)
- Center for Environmental Research & Children’s Health (CERCH)