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September 01, 2015 | By:  Samantha Jakuboski
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What's in YOUR Mattress? Part II: Flame Prevention and PBDEs

Bellbottoms. Disco. Watergate. The first Earth Day. The end of the Vietnam War. If I had a time machine, the 1970s would be one of the first decades on my list to visit. Call me crazy, but I can totally see myself rocking the whole big hair, platform shoes, flared pants, pastel halter shirt look while doing the Hustle to "Night Fever" in the middle of a discothèque with young John Travolta.

I digress.

Yes, the 1970s witnessed questionable fashion trends and some of history's most fascinating events, but it was also a time of change in the manufacturing world. Many pieces of furniture, such as mattresses, mattress pads, couches, and car seats, are made with polyurethane foam, which is a foam that is combustible when exposed to open flame and emits a noxious smoke when burned. In an effort to delay the start of fires, increase escape time, and decrease fire-related injuries and deaths in the home, California enacted Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) in 1975. TB 117 required upholstered furniture to undergo a flame regulation test (a twelve-second exposure to an open flame), and to pass this test, companies began to add flame retardant chemicals to their products. Soon, the regulation was unofficially adopted as a national standard, and the use of flame retardants skyrocketed. However, while TB 117 seems like an excellent public safety measure, the chemicals used - that were supposed to save peoples' lives - may be the cause of some serious health problems.

One class of these chemicals that was commonly used is polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). The three major types, or congeners, of PBDEs used in consumer products were: octa-BDE (used in electrical equipment, hard plastics, and electronics), deca-BDE (used in electrical equipment, rugs, and aircraft material), and penta-BDE (used in polyurethane foam). So, in addition to being found in the polyurethane foam* of upholstered furniture pieces - which, in some instances, accounts for 30% of the furniture weight - these chemicals are also present in many other everyday home objects.

*Polyurethane foam, even without the addition of PBDEs, can emit noxious chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and is linked to health problems. This will be discussed later in the blog series.

However, given the volatility of these chemicals, they are not just in your furniture or electronics. They are in you. Since PBDEs are dissolved in products rather than chemically bound to them, they tend to break free of their products, evaporate into the air, accumulate in dust, and enter our bodies with every breath taken. And, as polyurethane foam ages, it degrades and enters the air and dust, too, thus increasing our household exposure to PBDEs. (This is one reason why it is important to dust and vacuum frequently.) PBDEs also enter our bodies through the consumption of contaminated fish and meat, as well as through dermal absorption. Over time, these chemicals build up inside our bodies, or bioaccumulate. Accumulation of PBDEs has been found in the fatty tissues of humans and many animals, as well as in human blood, umbilical chord fluid, and breast milk. Since the 1970s, levels of PBDEs in humans have increased; according to a Swedish time-trend analysis, the levels of PBDEs in humans doubled every five years from 1972 to 1997. Also, it is not surprising that due to California's strict fire safety standards, the highest levels of PBDEs found in breast milk came from women living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Such elevated levels of PBDEs in breast milk make me very uneasy, since infant exposure to PBDEs has been linked to some serious health problems later in life.

Health Effects of PBDEs

PBDEs are believed to cause an array of health problems, especially for infants and children. Considering that infants explore by crawling around on the floor and putting their hands and other objects in their mouth, they are exposed to more dust and PBDEs than are adults. Additionally, since infants sleep longer than adults, they have increased exposure to gaseous PBDEs from their mattresses. I find this especially worrisome given the close proximity of an infant's (and even an adult's!) face to the mattress. After all, there is only a thin sheet to separate the two, and for a stomach sleeper, like myself, one's nose is practically inhaling the chemicals right when they become airborne. This is NOT good, for many studies have linked early PBDE exposure to disruptions of the endocrine system's release of hormones* and, as a result, brain development interference. A study conducted on newborn mice found that early exposure (three and ten days after birth) to penta-BDE (found in polyurethane foam) led to disturbances in brain development and permanent impaired motor behavior. Similar neurologic damage and impaired behavior has been linked in the past to neonatal exposure to PCBs.

*(For a more in-depth analysis on the relationship between hormone disruption and neurologic development, click here.)

Another study found that exposure to penta-BDE in ten-day old rats resulted in impaired learning abilities and memory. (If you are, like I was, wondering how the scientists measured rat intelligence, they used the Morris Water Maze.) When penta-BDE exposure in children was investigated, similar results were found: California children exposed to PBCDs in utero and during childhood had attention deficits, impaired fine motor coordination and cognitive function, and a decrease in IQ.

Penta-BDE exposure has also been linked to changes in the reproductive system, such as decreased male fertility, decreased uterine size, and increased ovarian size in rats.

As if all these health effects were not enough, PBDEs may be possible carcinogens. Penta-BDE has been linked to breast cancer, since it may play a role in the prevention of cell apoptosis and hence the proliferation of breast cancer cells. Additionally, deca-BDE has been linked to the formation of liver, thyroid, and pancreatic tumors in rodents, as well as the proliferation of cervical and ovarian tumor cells.

Of course, more research is needed to confirm the relationships between exposure to PBDEs and these health maladies. Many studies were conducted on animals, so perhaps the relationships do not hold up when we focus on human health. Still, I don't know about you, but I rather be safe than sorry and avoid exposure to PBDEs.

Legislation and Phase-Outs

Due to these health risks, many countries have regulated the use of PBDEs. In 2004, the use of penta-BDE and octa-BDE was banned from the European Union, and in 2008, deca-BDE was banned as well. While some American states have banned the use of penta-BDE and octa-BDE prior to 2004, the only penta-BDE and octa-BDE manufacturer in the United States agreed to stop the production of both by December 21, 2004. Similarly, states such as Maine and Maryland have taken it into their own hands to regulate or ban deca-BDE, and the main American deca-BDE importer and producers agreed to end all sales of products containing this chemical by the end of 2013. Some major electronic manufactures, such as Dell, Apple, Microsoft, and LG Electronics, have also pledged not to use deca-BDE in their products.

For more manufactures that made the pledge to go deca-BDE-free, click here.

Following the voluntary cease of penta-BDE and octa-BDE production in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency added a significant new use rule (SNUR) to the Toxic Substances Control Act. It required manufactures, as of January 1, 2005, to alert the Environmental Protection Agency ninety days in advance if they were to import or manufacture any products containing penta-BDE and octa-BDE, as well as products containing four other congeners. The EPA has the power to deny requests. Additionally, in 2013, TB 117 was modified so that the flame tests can be passed without the use of flame retardant chemicals.

For a complete, up-to-date list of state legislation on PBDEs, and the exceptions to the rules, click here.

My Concerns

It is important to note that although the use of PBDEs in new products has greatly declined, we are still exposed to these chemicals from furniture and appliances around us that were made prior to such legislation. Your mattress that you had since 1985? It most likely has PBDEs. Those car seats in your "classic, vintage" car? Yup, probably those too. And that super comfortable, fifteen-year old recliner that you love so much? I'm going to go with positive. Since we are still surrounded by many PBDE-containing products, we are still vulnerable to ingesting, inhaling, and absorbing these chemicals, and thus at risk. As I write this article and sit on our loveseat, which has been in the family for years, I can't help but feel a little squeamish over the fact that every time I change position, a puff of air (from the couch!) possibly containing PBDEs is released around me.

Additionally, in spite of voluntary phase-outs and legislation, I still wonder if we are unknowingly buying new products that contain PBDEs. After all, we import many goods from China, which has no restrictions on PBDEs, and which has a shady past when it comes to putting known toxic chemicals and metals in consumer goods, such as baby products and dog food. Yes, the EPA requires notification if penta-BDE and octa-BDE will be imported into our country, but I highly doubt that foreign manufactures are going to proudly attach a big label saying, "WE USE PENTA-BDA!" Do we really know what we are buying when we purchase goods?

In case you were wondering, my personal, somewhat cynical, opinion to that question is "no," and this applies to goods made everywhere, even in America. Although American manufactures may have stopped using PBDEs, the flame retardant chemicals that they are using to replace PBDEs may not be any safer for our health. After all, there are no required safety tests in America that new industrial chemicals have to pass before they are used in consumer goods. In fact, out of the more than 80,000 chemicals we are exposed to, very few have actually been tested. And apparently, even if a chemical is known to be toxic, that does not stop some manufacturers from using it anyway. A study published in 2014 by the Environmental Working Group and scientists from Duke University found that urine samples from a group of mother and children contained a metabolite of TDCIPP, a flame retardant chemical that has been declared a known carcinogen in California. In what world does replacing toxic PBDEs with carcinogens make any sense? We are only substituting one bad chemical for another.

Are you still there, reader? If your eyes are getting tired from staring at all these words on the screen, take a break and look at the dog on the recliner below. Cute, right? Well, unfortunately, he is probably inhaling PBDEs or some other noxious flame retardant as you read this. What a shame.

How to Avoid Flame Retardants

Since substitution flame retardants may also be toxic to our health, buying furniture that is free of these chemicals can be a good safety precaution. When buying new furniture, try to buy flame-retardant-free pieces. Stores such as Crate and Barrel, Ethan Allen, and Pottery Barn provide such furniture.

For a more complete list of stores and brands that offer flame-retardant-free furniture, click here.

Purchasing a new mattress can be a bit more difficult, since as of July 1, 2007, all mattresses, mattress sets, and futons must comply with specific fire safety performance requirements set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The use of flame retardants makes observing this mandate easier, just as it did with TB 117 prior to the 2013 modification. However, there is a way around this rule. Some companies wrap their mattresses in organic* wool, which acts as a natural flame retardant, so the use of chemicals is unnecessary. Additionally, doctors and chiropractors can prescribe a mattress that has not passed the performance requirements set by the CPSC and is free of flame retardant chemicals.

*Be cautious of the wording used to describe products. Just because a mattress may be labeled "organic" does not mean it is free from flame retardant chemicals. It simply means the cotton, wool, or other material was grown without the use of harmful pesticides, or the animal it came from was fed organic food and not exposed to synthetic hormones.

While supporters, such as the flame retardant industry, may praise these chemicals as life savers, claiming that the overall benefit conferred on the public is greater than any potential health risk, there is evidence that flame retardant chemicals might not have increased fire safety after all. In fact, they may make fires more deadly by emitting noxious fumes when burned. So really, why are these toxic chemicals being put in our furniture?

What are your questions and thoughts on the use of PBDEs? Do you think consumer products are safer for our health now that there are bans on PBDEs? Do you have a particular interest or concern regarding mattresses that you would like me to address in the next post? Please share in the comments below!

Picture Credits:

Flame: Camila MP (via Flickr) and available for use under the CC License

Baby Girl: Danibabii08 (via Flickr) and available for use under the CC License

Dog: Wendy Johnson (via Flickr) and available for use under the CC License


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DecaBDE Phase-out Initiative. Environmental Protection Agency. 8 January 2015.

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Government and Industry Actions to Phase Out PBDEs. Environmental Working Group. August 2015.

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Healthy Milk, Healthy Baby-PBDEs. Natural Resources Defense Council. 24 March 2005.

Polybrominated Diphenylethers (PBDEs) Significant New Use Rues (SNUR). Environmental Protection Agency. 8 January 2015.

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers. Breast Cancer Fund. n.d

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Published Studies:

Babrauskas, V., Blum, A., Daley R. and Birnbaum L., 2011. Flame Retardants in Furniture Foam: Benefits and Risks. Fire Safety Science 10, 265-278. doi: 10.3801/IAFSS.FSS.10-265

Butt, C., Congleton, J., Hoffman, K., Fang, M., Stapleton, H. (2014) Metabolites of Organophosphate Flame Retardants and 2-Ethylexyl Tetrrabromobenzoate in Urine From Paired Mothers and Toddlers. Environmental Science and Technology, 48 (17), 10432-10438. doi: 10.1021/es5025299

Darras, V. (2008). Endocrine Disrupting Polyhalogenated Organic Pollutants Interfere With Thyroid Hormone Signaling in the Developing Brain. Cerebellum, 7(1), 26-37. doi: 10.1007/s12311-008-0004-5

Eriksson, P., Viberg, H., Jakobsson, E., Örn, U., Frederiksson, A. (2002). A Brominated Flame Retardant, 2,2',4,4',5-Pentabromodiphenyl Ether: Uptake, Retention, and Induction of Neurobehavioral Alterations in Mice During a Critical Phase of Neonatal Brain Development. Toxicological Sciences, 67 (1), 98-103

Eskenazi, B., Chevrier, J., Rauch, S., Kogut, K., Harley, K., M Johnson, C., Trujillo, C., Sjodin, A., Bradman, A. (2013). In Utero and Childhood Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE) Exposures and Neurodevelopment in the CHAMACOS Study. Environmental Health Perspectives, 121(2), 257-262, doi:10.1289/ehp.1205597

Frederiksen, M., Vorkamp, K., Thomsen, M., Knudsen, L. (2009). Human Internal and External Exposure to PBDEs-A Review of Levels and Sources. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, 212 (2), 109-134. doi:10.1016/j.ijheh.2008.04.005

He, P., Wang, A., Niu, Q., Guo, L., Xia, T., Chen, X. (2011). Toxic Effect of PBDE-47 on Thyroid Development, Learning, and Memory, and the Interaction Between PBDE-47 and PCB153 that Enhances Toxicity in Rats. Toxicology and Industrial Health, 27 (3), 279-288. doi: 10.1177/074823371038700

Jones-Otazao, H., Clarke, J., Diamond, M., Archbold, J., Ferguson, G., Harner, T., Richardson, G., Ryan, J., Wilford, B. (2005). Is House Dust the Missing Exposure Pathway for PBDEs? An Analysis of the Urban Fate and Human Exposure to PBDEs. Environmental Health Perspectives, 39 (14), 5121-5130

Kalantzi O., Martin F., Thomas G., Alcock R., Tang H., Drury S., Carmichael P., Nicholson J., Jones K. (2004). Different Levels of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and Chlorinated Compounds in Breast Milk From Two U.K. Regions. Environmental Health Perspectives, 112 (10), 1085-1091. doi: 10.1289/ehp.6991

Kuriyama, S., Talsness, C., Grote, K., Chahoud, I. (2005). Developmental Exposure to Low-Dose PBDE-99: Effects on Male Fertility and Neurobehavior in Rat Offspring. Environmental Health Perspectives, 113 (2), 149-154. doi: 10.1289/ehp.7421

Li, Z., Liu, X., Chen, J., Huang, J., Su, C., Xie., F., Yu, B., Chen, D., (2012). Effects of Decabrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE-209) in Regulation of Growth and Apoptosis of Breast, Ovarian, and Cervical Cancer Cells. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120(4), 541-546. doi:10.1289/ehp.1104051

Meironyte, Noren, K., Bergman, A. (1999). Analysis of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers in Swedish Human Milk. A Time-Related Trend Study, 1972-1997. Journal of Toxicological Environmental Health Part A, 58(6), 329-341.

Ni, K., Lu, Y., Shi, Y., Kannan, K., Xu, L., Li, Q., Liu, S. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) in China: Policies and Recommendations For Sound Management of Plastics From Electronic Wastes. Journal of Environmental Management,115, 114-123. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2012.09.031

Ohta S., D. Ishizuka, H. Nishimura, T. Nakao, O. Aozasa, Y. Shimidzu, F. Ochiai, T. Kida, M. Nishi, H. Miyata. (2002) Comparison of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers in Fish, Vegetables, and Meats and Levels in Human Milk of Nursing Women in Japan. Chemosphere, 46 (5), 689-696

Porterfield, S. (1994). Vulnerability of the Developing Brain to Thyroid Abnormalities: Environmental Insults to the Thyroid System. Environmental Health Perspectives, 102(2), 125-130

Schecter, A., Pavuk, M., Papke, O., Birnbaum, L., Rosen, R. (2003). Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) in U.S Mothers' Milk. Environmental Health Perspectives, 111 (14), 1723-1729

Shaw, S., Berger, M., Weijs, L., Covaci, A. (2012) Tissue-Specific Accumulation of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers PDBEs) Including Deca-BDE and hexabromocyclododecanes (HCDs) in Harbor Seals From the Northwest Atlantic. Environmental International, 44, 1-6. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2012.01.001

She, J., Petreas, M., Winkler, J., Visita, P., McKinney, M., Kopec, D. (2002). PBDEs in the San Francisco Bay Area: Measurements in Harbor Seal Blubber and Human Breast Adipose Tissue. Chemosphere, 46 (5), 697-707

Siddiqi, M., Laessig, R., Reed, K., (2003). Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs): New Pollutants-Old Diseases. Clinical Medicine and Research, 1 (4), 281-290.

Yu, L., Zhan, P. (2009). Molecular Mechanisms Underlying Proliferation and Apoptosis in Breast Cancer MCF-7 Cells Induced by Pentabrominated Diphenyl Ethers. Toxicological and Environmental Chemistry, 91, 665-670.

Do you think consumer products are safer for our health now that there are bans on PBDEs?
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