Study Links Flame Retardants in Plastics to Cancer in Firefighters

Written by Lloyd Alter

So what is the problem with the flame retardants in our sofa and our insulation? Why do we want to get rid of plastic foam in our buildings? Flame retardants are supposed to do what their name says, namely retard fire. They do, to a degree; they were legislated into our sofas and mattresses in an era when a lot more people smoked, and they were designed to prevent smouldering cigarettes from starting fires. Once the fire gets going, they are deadly. Paula Melton at BuildingGreen points to a study by Susan Shaw of the Marine Environmental Research Institute.

Dr. Shaw explains in a press release: “Our study provides clear evidence that firefighters are exposed to high levels of cancer-causing chemicals including brominated flame retardants and their combustion by-products – dioxins and furans – that are formed during fires by the burning of flame-retarded foam furniture, televisions, computers and building materials. Firefighters have much higher levels and different patterns of these chemicals in their blood than the general population. There is no doubt that firefighting is a dangerous occupation. What we have shown here points to the possible link between firefighting and cancer.”

The study itself is behind the usual paywall, but the key points are summarized. Doctor Shaw concludes: “The findings of this pilot study indicate that firefighters are at risk for cancer and serious health effects from their occupational exposure.”

Given that the stuff doesn’t effectively stop fires, and is as harmful to the homeowners as it is to the firefighters, why is it still in so many things? Why do people buy them?

For one thing, the lobby groups are really rich and powerful, including the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, (funded by Albemarle Corporation, ICL Industrial Products, Chemtura and Tosoh Corporation.) and the astroturfing Citizens for Fire Safety, (funded by Albemarle Corporation, Chemtura Corporation and ICL Industrial Products).

There are so many issues here. I wrote earlier: The fire risk has been decreasing steadily with the decline in the number of smokers; the bromine industry is huge and they don’t want to lose their market; the sofas are made primarily of polyurethane foam, a huge part of the chemical industry. If people were willing to invest in decent furniture that was made from natural materials like wool and cotton, which are far less toxic when they burn, there would be less of a problem. If the building industry would stop fighting the idea of sprinklers, there would be no problem at all.

This post was originally published at TreeHugger.


Photo from Thinkstock


Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra3 years ago

Thank you TreeHugger, for Sharing this!

James Fisher

But there definitely needs to be research carried out here. Unfortunately nothing can be done until tere has been a bit more research into safer fireproofing .

James Fisher

What you win on one side -you lose on the other.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener3 years ago

Fire retardants ARE carcinogenic!

Julie D.
Julie D.3 years ago

Our firefighters face many dangers when trying to do their jobs, toxic fumes being one of them. Yet they are willing to risk their lives to save others everyday. The loss of 19 firefighters in Arizona is so tragic and such a great loss, may they rest in peace and may their families find the strength to heal from their grief.

KAREN D.3 years ago

Obviously if these fire retardants are more dangerous and unhealthy if they catch on fire, they should no longer be used, but banned.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener3 years ago

Isn't this old news?

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla3 years ago

I am not surprised.....

Monica T.
Monica T.3 years ago

Thank you for a very informative article...

Anna Jarczynska
Past Member 3 years ago

I cannot afford decent furniture:-((((((((((((((((((((.