If the Flames Don't Get You, the Flame Retardants WillS

Here's something most of us would rather not consider: Would you rather use a flammable mattress in your child's crib, or use a flame-retardant one—which, in the process of stifling flames, can release enough toxic fumes to risk the lives of everyone else in the house?

That seems to be the quandary presented by research coming out of the American Chemical Society's 243rd national meeting in San Diego. The number one cause of the 10,000 annual fire-related deaths worldwide (and the 3,500 in the USA) is not from burns, but from inhaled toxic gases. Researchers have found that bromine, the most common flame-suppressant chemical added to electronics, carpets, furniture, plastics, crib mattresses, and airline seats, is the best source of those deadly fumes. These halogen-based bromine retardants increase the the amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide released during combustion.

But not all flame-fighters are completely evil. Alternate substances don't carry deadly side effects, according to the findings of researcher Anna Stec, a chemistry lecturer in the Fire Science School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences at the University of Lancashire. Mineral-based formulas had little effect on fire toxicity. Additionally, intumescent agents, which swell when heated to form a barrier that flames can't penetrate, actually reduced the amount of toxic gases released during a fire. The problem for consumers is that most products don't come with labels indicating what chemicals are in them.

This isn't the first time halogen-based retardants have come under fire. Other studies have found them to be toxic even when they're just hanging out in your home un-ignited. Humans can carry elevated levels of these chemicals, which have been associated with learning disabilities and behavior problems. And one 2010 study associated the chemicals with fertility problems. What to do? Pray for no fire? Don't inhale inside your home? Your best bet may be this Green Science Policy Institute's buyer's guide. Three cheers for hippies. [American Chemical Society, Salon]

Image: Flickr/benwatts under Creative Commons license