What do curtains, carpets, furniture fabrics, insulation, and certain plastics often have in common? Flame retardants; are chemical additives that have been incorporated into many common goods and often in response to state and federal flammability requirements. As the name implies, these chemical compounds are added to reduce the flammability of materials or slow the spread of a fire. Some flame retardants leach from products and have been slowly accumulating in the environment and also in humans for many years. The main routes of human exposure are consumption or mouth contact with products and breathing in these additives once they have dispersed in the air.
Chemicals of one class of flame retardants, known as PBDEs, were banned in the US in 2004, due to their ability to accumulate in the body and cause adverse health effects. Another class of flame retardants, known as OPFRs, was recently studied in the air of 18 cities around the world. Scientists concluded that these airborne chemicals transformed into many different, more toxic compounds. Some of these chemicals were found in all of the air samples, indicating they may be contributing to worldwide air pollution problems.
Regulations have changed and many of these additives are no longer required or used in products. Also, consumers usually have the option to choose products without these flame retardant compounds by checking labels. It is also important to know that some of the additives are more problematic than others. The purchase of cleaner, more natural products and the choice of a simpler lifestyle (less stuff) usually coincide with healthier earth for all its inhabitants.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.