4 Ways to Reduce Your Exposure to Toxic Flame Retardants

Are you worried about flame retardants in your home? Unfortunately, you should be. These chemicals are found in our furniture, electronics, household dust, and even our food—and they are implicated in everything from infertility to autism. By law, flame retardants (often in the form of a group of chemicals known as PBDEs) are added to a variety of items in that most of us use on a daily basis—from the foam in our sofa cushions to the cords for our laptops. 

The good news? Recent legislation no longer requires the use of flame retardants in order for manufacturers to comply with a new “smolder standard.” This new law does not ban the use of toxic PBDEs—it just no longer requires them. This means that in the coming months we should see more flame-retardant-free furniture options becoming available. In the meanwhile, here are four easy and (mostly) inexpensive ways to reduce your family’s exposure to these ubiquitous toxins.

  1. Ditch your broom. Flame retardants accumulate in household dust, and sweeping puts plumes into the air. Instead, use a vacuum or wet mop to banish dirt and toxins—the more you can vacuum, the better (although for many of us with small children, once a week is the best we can do). Invest in a HEPA-sealed vacuum that really traps toxins. Ironically, some vacuum cleaners themselves contain flame retardants and other chemicals, so you’ll want to make sure you get a vacuum that is certified by RoHS, a European standard that limits heavy metals and certain flame retardants in electronics.
  2. Keep foam enclosed. Be sure to mend any rips in your sofa or chairs that might allow PBDE-treated foam to be exposed, and don’t remove cushion casings to launder. When it comes time to replace upholstered furnishings, rugs, window treatments, and pillows, choose products made of natural fibers, such as latex, cotton, down, and bamboo, and those that specify that they are free of ALL flame-retardant chemicals. Thanks to the aforementioned changes in legislation, more and more options should now be available.
  3. Invest in safe mattresses. Okay, so this is the expensive one. Still, I believe it’s important because of how much time we spend with our faces pressed against our mattresses (the vast majority of which are treated with PBDEs). If investing in a large untreated mattress is out of the question, consider upgrading just the mattresses for your children. Many of my clients think their crib mattresses are okay if they are old because they have “already off-gassed.” Unfortunately, this is not true in the case of foam mattresses. In fact, as the foam degrades, more PBDEs may be released. Get help choosing a truly nontoxic mattress with this Safe Mattress Guide.
  4. Eat more plants. Even if you rid your home of all items containing flame retardants, you’ll still have this stuff in your system, thanks to its pervasiveness in our environment. The good news is that there are ways to reduce your exposure by making small changes to what you eat. The number one food source of PBDEs is poultry fat. Red meat, fish, and eggs also contain PBDEs, but dairy doesn’t appear to be a problem. I have been unable to find any studies suggesting that organic meat is any less contaminated. The bottom line is this: the lowest levels of a variety of toxins–including PBDEs–are found in plant-based foods, so if you substitute beans for chicken a couple of times a week, you’ll reduce your risk of PBDE-associated ailments. 

If you’d like to get more easy tips on reducing your exposure to PBDEs or other environmental toxins, shoot me an email or visit my website, www.gimmethegoodstuff.org.

Reading Food Labels
Interview with Chris Kresser, About His Excellent New Book "Your Personal Paleo Code"