Are Flame Retardants Toxic?

Heather Dessinger

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are flame retardants toxic

Which One Of These Statements Is True?

A) In California, a firefighter is currently working to eliminate chemical flame retardants

B) My daughter asked me to write this post so she could wear footie pajamas

C) A star witness for the flame retardant industry flat out lied about babies dying in house fires, and your children are paying the price with their health

D) Flame retardants actually make fires MORE DEADLY
The answer, of course, is all of them. The story of how a PR problem for the tobacco industry has shaped every facet of our lives – our health, our environment, what we wear everyday, even how we sleep – is a convoluted one, but it’s one worth reading.

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Big Tobacco’s Inside Man Shapes Flame Retardant Industry

Decades ago cigarette manufacturers had a bit of an image problem – their products had been implicated in many tragic house fires, and communities were up in arms. Obviously, these kinds of things affect profits, so to divert the attention away from cigarettes they “planted” a former tobacco exec in a newly formed fireman’s association. According to the Chicago Tribune, former Tobacco Institute Vice President Peter Sparber helped organize The National Association of State Fire Marshalls, then offered his legal services “pro bono.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but pro bono usually means FOR FREE, right? Because in this case it didn’t mean that at all. Instead, Sparber was quietly charging the tobacco industry $200 an hour to manipulate and misdirect the fireman into shaping policy that served the tobacco industry.

And manipulate he did. Sparber successfully shifted the conversation away from cigarettes and onto the things they burned. In other words, if we can’t make cigarettes safe, by golly we should fire proof the world.

And So We Did, Except Not Really

In 1975, California passed a law requiring the use of flame retardants in furniture, bedding, and even pajamas for little ones. Now, you may live in Texas, Idaho, or Kalamazoo, but this little law changes you every day. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Blood levels of certain widely used flame retardants doubled in adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004.” (source)

These flame retardants are toxic, but manufacturers said that was okay because they’s stay tightly sealed in couches and beds.

Um, no.

Flame retardants have been detected in the blood of remote Arctic polar bears, human breast milk, and even in the bark of trees ranging from Tasmania to Indonesia. They are used widely by manufacturers of furniture, mattresses, plastics used in computers/appliances, and more.

Bromide (polybrominated diphenylethers [PBDEs]), an iodine look-alike found in flame retardants in furniture, upholstery, and in our mattresses, has been shown to alter thyroid function in pregnant women, increase the risk of Hashimoto’s, ADHD, diabetes, and is associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children. They are currently associated with lowered IQ, developmental problems, cancer, reproductive problems, and thyroid dysfunction.

Chlorinated phosphate fire retardants are also linked to possible brain and nerve damage.

Children are especially vulnerable to their effects, and yet a huge percentage of products containing fire retardants are made specifically for children. Babies born in the U.S. today have the highest recorded blood serum levels of fire retardants in the world.

“When we’re eating organic, we’re avoiding very small amounts of pesticides. Then we sit on our couch that can contain a pound of chemicals that’s from the same family as banned pesticides like DDT.”
~ Arlene Blum, California chemist who has fought to limit the use of flame retardants (source)

So What’s The Fire Safety Benefit . . .

We are getting in exchange for these health effects? NOTHING

Because in actuality, flame retardants don’t work as advertised. Take two chairs – one treated with flame retardants and one without – and set them on fire.

In four minutes you have two chairs with virtually no difference between them. (This was a test conducted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.)

Even worse, new research indicates that flame retardants make fires more deadly. According to Anna Stec, a fire specialist at the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom, a recent study “found that flame retardants have the undesirable effect of increasing the amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide released during combustion.” Inhalation of these two gases accounts for 60-80% of fire-related deaths.

You Can Help Change The Law In California

California legislators recently proposed changes to regulation TB 117, which would no longer require manufacturers to use toxic flame retardants in their products. Instead, the focus would be placed on using naturally fire-resistant fabrics (like wool), which have been shown to be much more effective at preventing fires in real world conditions.

Yesterday I spoke with Tony Stefani – a 27 year veteran firefighter – about what we can do to show our support for the proposed changes. He recently started a petition on to give us all a voice, and so far over 40,000 people have asked California to endorse these changes.

Don’t count your chickens yet, though. The chemical industry is not going to let this one go easily. The last time these regulations were reviewed they hired a doctor that LIED about babies dying in fires to scare legislators. I am not even kidding – here’s the full report.

I believe our children are far safer without exposure to these chemicals and the false sense of security they bring. I believe my daughter should someday get to wear princess footie pajamas without risking premature ovulation failure, cancer and hypothyroidism.

If you agree, join Tony and I over at, where we are making our voices heard!

This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

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Heather is a holistic health educator, herbalist, DIYer, Lyme and mold warrior. Since founding in 2009, Heather has been taking complicated health research and making it easy to understand. She shares tested natural recipes and herbal remedies with millions of naturally minded mamas around the world. 

Leave a Comment

47 thoughts on “Are Flame Retardants Toxic?”

  1. I am so fed up with all the garbage that is in and around us. BLAH. Lately I find myself throwing everything away and trying to live more and more simple. I’ve even asked my husband to build an outdoor fire stove to cook on. I’m so over all the junk and just want to be healthy. Our 3 lil acres seems so small now.

    • According to the discussion happening over at my facebook page, some manufacturers (Target, etc) spray clothes even when flame resistant status isn’t required. Apparently they do it to “protect” their inventory in case of a warehouse fire. Some are labeled as specifically flame resistant, though. It’s usually pajamas from what I’ve seen.

  2. Unbefreakinglievable .

    And to me, proves the truth of these statements: “The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” (1John 5:19)

    “The one called Devil and Satan . . . is misleading the entire inhabited earth.” – Revelation 12:9.

    Satan is “the god of this system of things.” (2 Corinthians 4:4)

  3. So does anyone know where we could find safe clothing especially for children? What about certain brands that sell “organic” cotton jammies and clothing? Are these free from fire-retardants? What about cotton jammies that have the tag that says “not flame resistant”– are those safe?

  4. Mae, according to the discussion happening over at my facebook page, some manufacturers (Target, etc) spray clothes even when flame resistant status isn’t required. Apparently they do it to “protect” their inventory in case of a warehouse fire.

    I haven’t looked into it, but I would think organic clothes wouldn’t be treated. Maybe I need to research and follow up with another post

    • I wonder if European clothing is treated as much as US clothing (or if they treat them at all). I have always loved certain European brands (especially kids clothes). Perhaps this is another reason to buy these brands!

  5. I’m so glad I recently found your site. You have the same concerns and ideals my husband and I have with raising our daughter, and our second child due in August.
    We despise the fact that we can’t use the adorable fleecy footies for our babies. They’re so cuddly and cute. Those are ALL treated. We compromised by buying footie pajamas from carters and osh gosh and other places online where the pjs are TIGHT FITTING and cotton. They don’t treat with fire retardant on those, since they’re tight fitting. Doesn’t seem as comfy for the poor child (I hate constricting sleeves, too tight, etc. while trying to sleep, myself) and it’s so totally unfair that the stupid tobacco company affects what my child wears for crying out loud.

  6. I have heard that only the US and UK use flame retardants. This stuff has me so worried. Do you have any resources about how to buy furniture safely? We are in a place that we need a new bed & couch, but we discovered when looking around that natural materials are triple the cost of not. What about mattress covers, and what about couches?? What to do on a low income?

  7. I just recently bought a gently used organic mattress with no flame retardants from it’s a wonderful site to find truely organic and safe mattresses and other products. The beds are made in Chico California and shipped from my home town Grass Valley CA. The mattresses do come with a high price and I am so fortunate to have found such a good deal on a pretty much new mattress. They also have crib mattresses and I do think it’s a really good investment. Also you can look up the website for 100% wool mattresses with no flame retardants.

  8. Thanks for this Heather. I have been wanting to find some good info on fire retardants. I LOVE the idea of a follow up post about what doesn’t contain these chemicals. I have an etsy store where I make clothes…I am thinking vintage fabrics prior to the 70’s won’t have this stuff. I also use a lot of wool, surely wool is not sprayed with fire retardant chemicals since it is naturally flame resistant and fire retardant?

  9. I recommend buying used clothing. Our family doctor (a naturopath) warned us about fleece clothing in particular, and said to only buy it second hand or to wash it multiple times before wearing. We try to stick to 100% cotton or hemp clothing as it is better for baby’s skin and breathable. I believe it is other fabrics that are usually chemically treated, but I’m not positive so will look forward to more info on this.

  10. Hey, I live in Tasmania! (Not even joking). That is quite horrible, really…I suppose you can take small comfort in the fact that your blog and the brilliant information you put out there is as far-reaching as the nasty chemicals?

  11. I thought there was a way to wash out the fire-retardant gunk? Another con of the stuff that I’ve heard is that instead of catching on fire, the clothing would actually melt to the child’s skin in a house fire, which sounds horrendously worse.

    • How about cotton PJ’s with an extra blanket? We dress our one year old in two layers of shirts/sweaters as he is prone to only covering up halfway with the blanket.

  12. Amazing, how much more crap are they trying to shove in our bodies to harm our health, its very irritating. Thank you Heather for your intense research and keeping us inform to protect ourselves.

  13. The current flame retardant law about bedding (16 CFR1633 requires mattress and box springs to pass a flame retardant test that ignites the sides and tops of the bedding with an open torch. The test then requires the flame to self extinguish in 2 minutes. The standard does not limit the flame retardants used to chemicals. Felted wool barriers are very effective at extinguishing flame, though very expensive to use. Similar laws apply to furniture and synthetic fabric PJ’s. I have found that usually, one can make for themselves healthier products than conventional stores sell, so that is what my family has done with mattresses. We made our daughters’ mattresses a few years back and now have been running a little business making mattress parts for people to assemble as they wish. We source our wool from local (MN) farmers, get our organic cotton ticking custom made and source our natural latex from Sri Lanka. If we could help any one by giving them another option for their bed, we’d be happy to lend a hand and share some information. Look us up on Facebook: Natural Mattress Co

  14. I too am horrified by all chemicals that are purposely manipulated to be wonderful and “life saving” ranging from our foods, our waters, our clothing, our furniture, our medications, our cosmetics, our air, our earth, our life…everything is tainted and poisoning us. it is really sad. but with knowledge and discussion I can make the choice for my family and I to avoid it as much as we can..

  15. This reminds me of the story in No Impact Man. Do you remember the TV commercial of the Native American standing by the side of the road, silently weeping one tear as someone drives by in a car and tosses out a plastic bottle or aluminum can? That commercial was made by the disposable bottle industry group. The problem of litter, which frankly wasn’t a problem before disposable wrappers and bottles, had become big. The highways and byways of America were strewn with trash in a way they were only a few years before when we bought our soda in returnable bottles. So, instead of getting out of an unsustainable business model, they passed the buck to us. The trash was our fault. We were low down dirty scum making Native American’s cry. Our habit of tossing trash out the window = the Trail of Tears. Nice. We felt bad. They got to keep their unsustainable business model just that much longer! Brilliant and apparently as deadly, especially if you are a fish or bird trying to eat the busted up little plastic things floating in an island as big as the US in the middle of the Pacific.

    I am working hard on environmental issues. Focusing on feeding my family right. Looking forward to the day when global consciousness leads industry and not the other way around.

    Thank you for all you do to share the problems and point to the solutions.

    Love you Mommypotamus!

  16. I read a story about this in the NY Times last year called “How Toxic is your Sofa” or something like that. It is so disheartening to think of all the chemicals in my home. The hardest part about this issue is that I can’t think of an easy solution; all the natural mattress and sofas without flame retardants are very, very expensive. The article in the NY Times made it seem like older furniture was actually worse, because the chemical compounds were breaking down and being released at a higher rate. I would love to read a post about what the average person can do to avoid these chemicals. I really hope California changes this law, it’s so ludicrous!

  17. I was a child when the requirement for flame retardent children’s sleepwear was imposed. I hated the new jammies! The 70s era versions reeked of chemicals and stayed stiff forever. I refused to wear them … had big comfy t’s or sleepwear for teens which was except from the requirement. I wanted my old flannel back 🙂

  18. So is it safe to assume that all pj’s sold by major stores (old navy, target, etc) are flame-retardent? I don’t recall that being a feature of the ones I bought, but maybe it’s a given, they all are?

    • I’m not really sure. I thought that if they were tight-fitting cotton ones that they wouldn’t be, but according to at least one mom some stores use them anyway as a loss-prevention technique in case of a fire at the warehouse.

  19. A few things:
    1: We just bought a 100% natural latex mattress with an organic cotton cover that was NOT fire retardant (we had to get a doctor’s prescription to order it). It was much more affordable than you’d think (although, we live in Portland, OR, so these “weird” things are not hard to find!), and totally worth every penny considering we are bed-sharing with our newborn. We sleep so much better now, not only because latex is pretty comfy, but because we know we’re not being silently poisoned…
    2: BEWARE OF WOOL as a fire-retardant alternative. Most wool comes from sheep that have been heavily treated with chemicals. Be sure you know exactly where your wool comes from before you go sleeping on it.
    3. This is all the more reason to buy used or accept hand-me-down clothes that have been washed MANY times. Of course, you never know what they’ve been washed in, but I’ll take my chances over freshly manufactured clothes any day.

    • Wool from sheep treated with chemicals? Are you sure? As one who is in the natural wool industry and who takes pains to call every manufacturer I stock as well as all those who I’d like more information on, I have only heard the opposite. Farmers do funny things to their sheep, like coating them. Literally, they make the sheep wear light weights coats to keep their wool clean. The coats are made in three sizes so the farmer can change the sheep to the next size up as the wool grows. What happened to farmers getting in the river with the sheep and washing their wool while still on the sheep, Farmer Boy style (think Laura Ingalls Wilder)? It’s not unkind or full of chemicals though. The unkind thing that large scale farmers do to Merino sheep is called mulesling, but if you get wool either with organic certification or from a company that hand picks its farmers as I and many others do, mulesling is not allowed. So all in all, wool is rather a clean crop. Chemicals may be added at the mill to give it strength, to keep it from felting, but again, not with the organic certification and not on the sheep.
      And by the way, wool can be a great fire retardant, if the fibers are closely packed together. Of course, a string of wool will burn like anything else, but a garneted wool bat (flat sheet) can leave the fibers so close together that oxygen cannot permeate them and without oxygen, there can be no fire. A carded wool provides a looser batting and would provide lovely loft as it is not compressed. The fire retardant properties of wool depend on both the compression of the fibers as well as the amount of wool present.