Flame Retardant Chemicals Detected in Body Fluids

November 13, 2014 Updated: November 13, 2014

A new study on flame retardants on California residents has revealed startling results, with traces of the chemicals found in body fluids. 

Researchers hope that testing methods developed during the study will be adopted by large-scale chemical monitoring programs used in both Canada and the U.S. 

“We are detecting these carcinogens in people and some of these carcinogens are not new,” said Robin Dodson, research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute and lead author of the study, published this week in the periodical Environmental Science and Technology.

Traces of chlorinated tris or TCEP, a cancer-causing chemical, were found in the urine of 15 out of 16 California residents tested. TCEP has been banned in the state from children’s sleeping apparel for nearly 40 years, but was only recently banned from use in furniture. 

Previous research by the institute found dust from furniture contained high trace levels of flame retardants, which caused researchers to ask: What are the levels in people? 

“When we tried to answer that question we realized the analytical methods weren’t there,” said Dodson. “As a research tool we are hoping that other researchers can now take these methods and incorporate them into larger bio monitoring programs like we have in the U.S. or in Canada.” 

In recent years, studies have demonstrated that many of the flame retardants used in furniture are not even effective in preventing fires. Adding to health concerns is the fact that TCEP can also harm people’s nervous and reproductive systems. The chemical is used in polyurethane foam, plastics, polyester resins, and textiles.

According to Dodson, the flame retardant chemicals don’t need to be in furniture because alternatives are available, but since many people don’t know that these chemicals are being added, more awareness is needed. 

“Now it is really up to the consumer to ask for furniture to be flame retardant-free. That is where we are going,” he said. “By increasing transparency and information about the chemicals that we use in our furniture and our building materials we can have a consumer-driven shift away from using these chemicals when they are just not necessary.” 

Last month, a U.N. expert committee recommended that governments consider adding the flame retardant DecaBDE to a list of chemicals to be banned worldwide. In April of this year, Health Canada moved to ban the use of TCEP in products intended for infants and children up to age 3. The agency stopped short of an outright ban on the products. 

“The government takes the approach of dealing with one chemical at a time, and a lot of these flame retardants have similar properties,” said Fe De Leon, a researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association. 

“It is a situation where in both California and Canada we have a very reactive regulatory framework that deals with chemicals management. Some of these numbers are not that surprising.” 

Kaven Baker-Voakes is a freelance reporter based in Ottawa.