Flame retardants are everywhere from your TV to your couch to your car. In the U.S., we’ve largely switched out an old class of retardants with another class that may be much more toxic and widespread than what they were created to replace.
A new study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters reviewed more than a hundred papers—many of which this study’s authors were active researchers on—to learn more about the new class of flame retardants. What they found was pretty disturbing: These new chemicals—known as organophosphate ester flame retardants—have entered our environment in concentrations higher than the class of flame retardants that came before them.
The finding is one that’s played out before. Companies have released substances before knowing the full range of impacts they can have. By the time they find out how bad it is for people, it’s already everywhere.
“You in New York City, and me in Toronto, and the polar bears in the Arctic, just about everybody on the planet has flame retardant in them,” study author Miriam Diamond, an earth sciences professor at the University of Toronto, told Earther. “Flame retardants are all over the place.”
These chemicals can even be found in remote environments, such as the air and sediment in the Arctic. What’s worse, the paper cites a number of early assessments showing that many of the new types of flame retardants are toxic. Some of that research has pointed to potential developmental impacts on fetuses, as well as reduced fertility in adults. The authors warn against the continued use of these chemicals—especially giventhe current rate at which they’re entering the natural environment—though further analysis is still needed to fully understand their impacts on human health.
“It speaks to the incredible footprint that humanity has on the globe,” Diamond said. “Some of these chemicals do present yet another stress to organisms that are already struggling with loss of habitat and toxic algae and a warming climate.”
Meanwhile, the older flame retardants—compounds dubbed polybrominated diphenyl ethers that are also incredibly toxic in their own right—linger in people’s homes, too. That means numerous people are facing exposure to both classes of chemicals. Ultimately, the report authors argue, we need to reduce the use of flame retardants, some of which can leave a toxic legacy after a fire. While some governments—Canada, in particular—are starting to examine whether we need to use so many of these chemicals, looking at them individually is awfully cumbersome. Instead, the report authors want them handled as a class. And shouldn’t we make sure chemicals are safe before we put them into products anyways?
“The time has come for manufacturers, with the help of the scientific community, to stop moving from the use of one family of harmful chemicals to the next and to instead find innovative ways to reduce both fire hazard and the use of hazardous chemicals,” the study said.
This, however, will require direct action from world governments, and the industrial players invested in the sale of the new flame retardants won’t make it easy, said Diamond.
In the meantime, there’s only so much we as consumers can do to avoid these chemicals. Diamond’s main suggestion for individuals: Don’t buy so much stuff. It’s also one of the best ways to combat the climate crisis, which she sees as a partner with the pollution crisis. Still, our actions can go only so far. The change required to protect public health from these flame retardants lies beyond the shopping habits of mindful consumers.
“We shouldn’t just individualize the problem because when we do that, we create social injustices,” Diamond said. “I appreciate that we need to act individually, but I want to emphasize that this needs a societal approach.”