Fire Retardants: The Toxics in Your Dust

It’s in your dust. It’s also in your blood. And your fat. Most likely it is in your child’s halloween costume, the milk of most mothers you know, and your computer. It shows up in all the dust tested in U.S. homes and could be affecting your thyroid, learning ability (it is neurotoxic), and endocrine system. It is a recognized carcinogen and developmental toxicant.

The ubiquitous chemical I am referring to is a fire retardant. There are three varieties, known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs: Penta, octa and deca.

• Penta is found in flexible polyurethane foams found in upholstery, mattresses, and pillows, as well as rigid foams in personal computers and television sets.
• Octa is used in the plastic housing of computer monitors and televisions, and circuit boards.
• Deca is used in polystyrene plastic packaging for electronic equipment, polyethelene for wires, cables, pipes, and fabrics and upholstery drapes.

Oh, that green couch my father bought, with those foam cushions that kept pushing out through the upholstery, that I inherited and spent years on reading, breast-feeding, talking, napping …

Some manufacturers discontinued the use of penta and some octa at the end of 2004, replacing them with deca, thought to be a safer PBDE, although that premise has been controversial.

From 1953 until the mid-90s, all children’s sleepwear was required by the U.S. Federal Government to be flame-retardant, a mandate was an attempt to protect babies and toddlers. Since the health effects of PCBEs became better known the government changed the law to allow two choices: Polyester sleepwear with flame retardants, or snug-fitting PJs that can even be made of organic cotton, because tight sleepwear is less likely to come in contact with flame.

“How many babies have you heard go up in flames? How often does that happen?” a friend said to me tongue-in-cheek about this issue. Yet now the whole word is contaminated with flame retardants.

Unless your mattress is pure organic wool, it probably has been treated with fire retardants. Wool is naturally fire resistant and less likely to be chemically treated.

Wool is wonderful in a number of ways, not the least of which that it breathes and wicks moisture from your body when you sleep besides being naturally fire resistant, so if you are worried about your child being in PJs without a fire retardant, find a source of organic sleep sacks and wool baby pajamas; there are a number on the internet.

Here is an idea for making a flame-retardant treatment for decorations from my book, Home Enlightenment (Rodale, paperback, 2008). After all, I am surely not advocating any fire risk in your home, and this just might help stop a fire. Decorations are often nestled amidst candles or holiday lights, and while this DIY formula will help, make sure to keep decorations away form flames.

DIY Flame-Retardant Treatment
7 ounces borax
3 ounces boric acid
2 quarts hot water

Dissolve and combine the ingredients. Dip or spray decorations in the solution. Safety-test small parts for flame resistance and reapply the solution if needed.

How to Remove Foam manufactured before 2005
• Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
• Bit by bit try to replace all furniture made with foam. This is a tall financial order, so begin with any furniture that has torn upholstery.
• Switch to organic wool and cotton when possible.
• Discard of the foam without exposing yourself or your family. For example, don’t remove the foam from the slip covers in the house, and discard both the upholstery fabric and the cushion.

Read an Ask Annie about a How to Block Fumes from a Car Seat or from a crib mattress.


Murat K.
Past Member 6 years ago

thanks nice blog.
prefabrik villa

Marcia Machado
Marcia Machado6 years ago


Marcia Machado
Marcia Machado6 years ago


gail d.
gail dair8 years ago

thanks for the article

Vural K.
Past Member 8 years ago



Eric G.
Eric Gahan9 years ago

Especially with mattresses & bedding - you sleep with these for 6-10 hours EVERY DAY. Thats why Earthsake is a great source for bedding and mattresses that not only use organic wool and cotton but PureGrow wool from local farms in Sonoma California - so you buy local and support local farms while making your life healthier!

Kara L.
Kara L9 years ago

It's so frustrating to hear about these things that we've been exposed to our entire life and now we know they are bad. So what to do? All those years and even now sleeping on a mattress that is most likely treated with fire retardant; lounging on couches and chairs; sleepwear; carpets; etc. Even though I try to be as 'natural' as I can, my house is probably packed full with toxic materials! So what to do after all this time?

Dennis F.
Dennis F9 years ago

I do remember hearing of a number of children that used to die from gas floor jets, from very old houses. It seems like children had long clothing for the cold weather, and all they had to get was a bit close to these floor heaters to "go up in flames". I am very interested in seeing more environmentally friendly flame retardants, for computer and electronic stuff, etc.