Flame retardants are chemicals that inhibit the spread of fire. They are added to products such as furniture, certain fabrics (curtains, children’s pajamas, carpeting, etc.), electronics, upholstery, and insulation, to name a few. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were the first flame retardants, but were banned in 1977 after they were discovered to be toxic. Brominated flame retardants replaced PCBs, but have since also been found to be toxic and will be completely removed from use by the end of this year. Good riddance.

But it seems the pattern is being repeated. Organophosphate esters are taking the place of previous flame retardants because they were thought to break down easily in the environment and not cause much harm. A new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters found that outdoor air levels of organophosphate flame retardants were between 100 and 1,000 times higher than the brominated flame retardants they are replacing.

The scientists collected air samples around the Great Lakes region for 24 hours every 12 days from March to December, 2012. “These organophosphate levels are higher than any historic levels of PBDEs [brominated flame retardants] measured during their active production and use,” stated Amina Salimova, lead researcher. The report reveals that these flame retardants are not as benign as they are said to be. “High concentrations and long-range transport are tell-tale characteristics for chemicals that persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in food webs. Such chemicals often are candidates for regulation.”

Flame retardants are used in and on so many everyday products, most of which we cannot avoid, and they have been linked to a number of health conditions. My hope is that it will not take ten more years to figure out that these chemicals, like the previous flame retardants, are also toxic and need to be phased out of use.