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If your dog is enjoying time with you right now on the couch, there’s a very good chance that you and your dog are being exposed to dangerous chemical flame retardants which have been linked to cancer, reproductive and endocrine system problems and lower IQs in children.

Flame retardants are chemicals meant to save human lives by delaying the combustion of products in a fire. They are widely used in a broad range of products from children’s cribs, furniture, electronics and building insulation.

Do Flame Retardants Make Us Safer?

In the 1970’s, regulations were introduced requiring home furniture to be injected with chemicals including PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), in the hope that these flame retardant chemicals would be effective in reducing sofa fires. However, a 2012 investigation by the Chicago Tribune, featured in the documentary Toxic Hot Seat, found that these retardants actually didn’t provide protection. The chemicals are linked to cancer, reproductive and endocrine disorders and lower IQs in children.

PBDE mixtures made up of less-brominated compounds are regarded as more dangerous because they bioaccumulate in animal tissues. These mixtures were banned by the European Union and were voluntarily removed from the U.S. market in 2004, but remain in the environment. Mixtures with more-brominated compounds remain in use in the U.S.until the end of 2013 when they were phased out under new regulations initiated by the state of California, requiring less toxic flame retardants in our home furnishings. Even though these new California standards will lead to nationwide changes, these toxic chemicals may still be hard to avoid.

How PBDEs Get Into Food

Even though PBDEs have been banned in the US, there is evidence that these dangerous chemicals still permeate our lives and our dogs’ lives.

PBDEs can enter the environment in a variety of ways. One of those ways is during food processing or packaging. PBDEs are emitted at many stages during the production and use of consumer products. PBDE-containing products will continue to degrade and enter the waste stream; as this happens future exposure may shift from the indoor environment to the outdoor environment and thus, our food (Harrad and Diamond 2006). According to the Boston University School of Public Health, this highlights the need for research into the pathways of PBDEs into the food supply, particularly commercial animal products in the United States.

It’s Worse for Pets

In 2011, Indiana University scientists found that that chemical flame retardants in the blood of pet dogs showed concentrations five to ten times higher than in humans (Venier & Hites, Indiana University, Flame Retardants in the Serum of Pet Dogs and in Their Food). In cats the levels were even higher – 20 to 100 times higher than those found in humans – most likely because dogs metabolize the chemicals more quickly than cats do.  PBDEs in dog food were found to be significantly higher than levels found in meats for human consumption; this means the PBDEs probably result from the processing of pet foods.

The Indiana University study also detected newer flame retardants since PBDEs have been removed, including Dechlorane Plus, decabromodiphenylethane, and hexabromocyclododecane. These (mostly unregulated) chemicals are structurally similar to organic pollutants that have been linked to environmental and human health effects. The lack of regulation means it’s likely the levels of these chemicals will increase in future.

Avoiding Toxic Flame Retardants

So what can you do to avoid PBDEs and other flame retardant chemicals for the health of you and your dog? Here are some recommendations from the Environmental Working Group:

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  • Inspect foam items. Replace anything with a ripped cover or foam that is misshapen and breaking down. If you cannot replace these items try to keep the covers intact. Beware of older items like car seats and mattress pads where the foam is not completely encased in a protective fabric.
  • Use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter. These vacuums are more efficient at trapping small particles and will likely remove more contaminants and other allergens from your home. HEPA-filter air cleaners may also reduce particle-bound contaminants in your house.
  • Do not reupholster foam furniture. Even those items without PBDEs might contain poorly studied fire retardants with potentially harmful effects.
  • Be careful when removing old carpet. The padding may contain PBDEs. Keep your work area isolated from the rest of your home. Clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and mop to pick up as many of the small particles as possible.
  • When purchasing new products ask the manufacturers what type of fire retardants they use. Avoid products with brominated fire retardants, and opt for less flammable fabrics and materials, like leather, wool and cotton. Be aware that “natural” or latex foam and natural cotton are flammable and require a fire retardant method that may contain toxic fire retardants.
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Furniture complying with the new regulations beginning in 2014 bears a tag that reads “TB 117-2013,” but that does not mean that furniture is free of flame retardants. For that information, consumers will have to ask retailers directly, and for retailers to know the answer, they will have had to make inquiries to manufacturers.

And for electronics: According to EWG, “The form of PBDEs known as Deca is used in computer and television monitors; as well as other electronic products. Deca is not subject to any use restrictions, despite the fact that is has been detected at higher concentrations in children, and is toxic to animals. It has been shown to break down in to more toxic forms once it enters the environment.”

“When purchasing new products look for these brands, which have publicly committed to phasing out all brominated fire retardants: Acer, Apple, Eizo Nanao, LG Electronics, Lenovo, Matsushita, Microsoft, Nokia, Phillips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony-Ericsson, and Toshiba,” and more.

Sources:
School of Environmental and Public Affairs, Indiana University
Environmental Working Group
National Law Review
Chicago Tribune
Scientific American
Environmental Working Group PBDE Free Guide
Environmental Working Group TBBPA
Environmental Health Perspectives
Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society Biological Sciences
Boston University School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health