Are Flame Retardants Killing Us?

How Fire-Resistant Products are Killing Us (and making our kids stupid)

(and what to do about it)

toxic flame retardants,

Image: Where Flame Retardants are Found
Image Credit: Rebekah Wilce, Chicago Tribune

Good Intentions:

Preventing flames from developing in our furniture, mattresses, or child-seats would seem to be a noble goal. In fact, the United States laws regarding flammability of clothing and furnishings (like the Flammable Fabrics Act, enacted in 1953) are intended to protect the public from “unreasonable risk” of fires leading to death, personal injury, or property damage. These laws originally evolved as a result of some tragic clothing fires involving early plastic clothing in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The Act was subsequently amended to include other consumer products. Standards were implemented for children’s sleepwear in 1972, and for mattresses in 1973.

The American public did not want our clothing or our furniture bursting into flames. Seems reasonable. We wanted our products to be fire resistant. So, naturally, fabric and foam manufacturers began adding chemicals to these products; chemicals that helped them resist bursting into flames during the standardized flame tests. Except there was nothing “natural” about these chemicals. And, because the chemicals in question were not being added to our food, nobody was required to first test these chemicals for their effects on us, or our children, or our pregnant future-mothers.

Discovery of Toxicity

That all changed in 1977 when Drs. Arlene Blum and Bruce Ames grabbed attention with a paper, published in the prestigious, iconic research journal, Science. Drs. Blum, Ames, and their team reported that the most widespread flame retardants in use were in fact mutagenic. That is, they changed our DNA! More bluntly: flame retardants cause cancer. [More recently, there is strong evidence that these toxins also cause neuro-developmental delays and disorders, and that they are linked to the rise in autism!]

The response of the chemical industry (in addition to denying the results), and in addition to extolling the virtues of chemical flame retardants, was simply to alter a side-chain on the flame retardants. At the time their report was published in Science, the chemical flame retardants in common use were “organochlorine compounds.” In chem-speak, they were “organochlorines.”

Doing the Right Thing

In response to the heat of scientific scrutiny and public outcry, the chemical plants did what any good capitalistic company would do: they simply changed one halogen (chlorine) for another (bromine) and continued producing organohalogen flame retardants, except the were producing organobromine flame retardants instead of organochlorine flame retardants. Real nice (not). As if those organohalogen compounds would somehow be less toxic or less carcinogenic with a different halogen atom hanging off the side (not). But it did have the effect of getting regulators off the backs of the chemical companies. In the opinion of many people, myself included, the makers of these chemicals did not “do the right thing.”


It might not be so alarming if these toxic chemicals used as flame retardants were limited to foam found only in older furniture, or limited to some older kid’s pajamas that they have long since outgrown. But that’s not the case: these chemicals can be found in our entire eco-system, and they can be found in EVERY ONE OF US.

In fact, despite several phase-outs of various generations of flame retardants, these toxins remain in our environment; they can still be measured in our blood, and they can be measure in the blood of our babies. And these things are known toxins, now linked to cancers, neuro-developmental delay, and autism.

Do they work? Do “flame retardants” actually prevent fires? Do they make us any safer?

Perhaps we should forgive the chemical industry for continuing to endorse “flame retardants.” After all, if, as they maintain, exposure to these chemicals saves many, many lives, then maybe a few cancers wouldn’t be such a huge price to pay? That is, should we accept a few cancers, and the loss of a few IQ points in our children, or a few cases of autism as a fair trade for reducing the risk of our furniture burning? Maybe, maybe not, and we can debate that philosophical issue another time. But for now, let’s simply try to answer that first question: are they effective? Are they fire-resistant? Do these poisonous flame retardants prevent fires and save lives?

I will begin that challenging analysis next time right here on

In the meantime, take a look at a couple of the sources listed below. The first two sites are especially valuable in your education on this topic as a parent or teacher. They provide plenty of objective data (if you want it), but more importantly, they provide easy-to-digest information on how to minimize your exposure to these toxic chemicals.


Two of the best sources:


The original paper that brought attention to the toxicity of flame retardants:—for-us-and-the-environment.html
And for balance, Pro-flame retardant website that supports the chemical industry:

Image Credit: Rebekah Wilce, Chicago Tribune –


Hi, I’m Russell Faust, author of this medical education blog.

Russell Faust, PhD, MD boogordoctor / organic foods, healthy foods

Dr. Faust and friend

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