What are flame retardants?
Flame retardants are a group of chemicals made up of several classes of chemicals, each with diverse chemical and physical properties that influence their effectiveness and use in consumer products.
We began to evaluate a type of flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Since then we have investigated additional flame retardants, particularly replacements for PBDEs.
Sources and exposure
Manufacturers add flame retardants to foam, plastics, textiles, and other products to meet flammability standards. They are intended to slow the spread of a fire and provide additional escape time. Many products such as car seats, recreational foam (like what's found in gyms), electronics, tents, and building insulation can contain flame retardants.
In the past, products like upholstered furniture and some children’s products with foam were frequently manufactured with flame retardants. With changes in flammability standards for those products, flame retardants are no longer needed.
Studies show PBDEs and other flame retardants have been escaping from products and accumulating in people and the environment. PBDEs are found in human breast milk, blood, fat, household dust, indoor air, fish, wildlife, birds, beef, dairy products, and sediments.
Toxicity and health effects
The potential health effects from exposure to flame retardants include cancer, endocrine and reproductive effects, and neurological and developmental disorders. Consumer products that children are exposed to, like electronics and older furniture, are of higher concern.
Taking action against flame retardants
Manufacturers voluntarily agreed to stop producing two kinds of PBDEs, Penta-BDE and Octa-BDE, by the end of 2004. Washington was the first state to ban a third kind of PBDE, Deca-BDE, and subsequently manufacturers of Deca-BDE agreed to stop producing, importing, and selling it by 2012 in the U.S.
Before the 2011 ban went into effect, we and the Department of Health performed an alternatives assessment to identify a safer and technically feasible alternative that met fire safety standards. In 2016, Washington banned five other flame retardants in children’s products and residential furniture. Currently, flame retardants are considered priority chemicals under Safer Products for Washington.
Chemical action plan recommendations
The chemical action plan for PBDE recommended prohibiting the use of PBDEs in specific products, which the Legislature passed in 2008. Our 2015 report to the Legislature added further recommendations, including:
- Restricting the use of eight flame retardants commonly used in children's products and furniture.
- Restricting the use of TBBPA and HBCD in textiles used in children's products and furniture.
- Requiring that manufacturers report their use of all flame retardant chemicals used in consumer products.
History of actions to address flame retardants in Washington
2020 — Safer Products for Washington lists recreational polyurethane foam and electronic enclosures as priority products containing flame retardants for further research and potential regulation.
2019 — Washington passes The Pollution Prevention for Healthy People and Puget Sound Act, listing flame retardants as priority chemicals under the first cycle of Safer Products for Washington.
2018 — Our 2016 product testing study finds that manufacturers moved away from using flame retardants in children’s upholstered furniture, but that flame retardants were used in play tents and tunnels.
2016 — Washington amends the Children’s Safe Products Act to ban the use of five flame retardant chemicals from children’s products and in residential furniture. The Legislature directs us and Department of Health to study whether six additional flame retardants should be added to the list of Chemicals of High Concern to Children.
2015 — We release a report recommending actions to address toxic flame retardants as directed by the Legislature.
2014 — Our study finds that manufacturers moved away from using PBDE in consumer products sold in Washington, but that alternative flame retardants were used.
2008 — Washington bans the sale of products containing PBDE.
2006 — We finalize a chemical action plan for PBDE.