We already know that a wide range of common household products contain hazardous flame retardants, such as appliances, electronics, furniture and child care items. But flame retardants are also frequently added to building materials themselves, such as insulation, wiring, and heating, ventilation and cooling systems. Given their use throughout our homes and their failure to stay in the materials to which they’re added, it’s not surprising that they show up in high levels in house dust, especially in regions where their use goes unchecked. We inhale and ingest this dust, along with the chemicals attached to it. According to the EPA, 80 to 90% of U.S. exposures occur in the indoor environment through contact with house dust.
Toddlers have higher levels compared to other family members, because they spend more time on the floor and tend to put things in their mouths. Pets are also among the most exposed members of the household. Cats in particular, because their grooming consists of licking their fur, are continually ingesting house dust and the chemicals that adhere to it. However, dogs are also exposed in homes and are vulnerable to negative health effects.
Exposure may vary greatly from room to room within a home, depending on where flame retardant-containing materials and products are located. For instance, dust gathered from a living room with a television and a couch, loveseat and chair containing pounds of hazardous flame retardant chemicals may have much higher dust concentrations than a bedroom containing wood furniture and a mattress that used flameproof materials to achieve fire safety standards.
Exposure also varies depending on where your home is located. In the European Union, where flame retardant chemicals have been regulated for a longer period of time, flame retardant levels in house dust have been measured up to 200 times lower than in the United States. In California, dust in homes contained 4 to 10 times higher levels found elsewhere in the United States, and levels found in the blood of California residents were double that of the national average. California’s unique furniture flammability standard, requiring furniture to be fire resistant to an open flame for 12 seconds, has led to this increased exposure. These findings provide evidence that the problem can be solved through better chemical laws and regulations, and appropriate flammability standards.
To the greatest extent practicable, it’s important to avoid insulation, wall covering, and other building materials that contain hazardous flame retardants. Generally, polyester furniture filling is much less likely to contain these chemicals than furniture or baby care products made with polyurethane foam. Replacing computer and television displays that contain cathode ray tubes with flat screens will also lower house dust levels. The best way to avoid hazardous flame retardants is to ask product makers how they achieve flammability standards before you buy a building material or product and only select those that do not contain hazardous additive chemicals.