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Environment & Flame Retardants

The effects of flame retardants in the environment

Flame retardants migrate out of products and accumulate in the environment. Many flame retardants are persistent and can undergo long-range environmental transport. Flame retardants enter the environment through multiple pathways, such as emission during manufacturing, from products in use, and combustion, leaching from landfills, or recycling at the end of the product‘s life. Since their introduction, FRs have become widespread global contaminants and have been detected throughout the world in air, water, soil, sediment, sludge, dust, bivalves, crustaceans, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, and humans.

Fog and Nature

“Once buried as waste, flame-retardants move through soil as rainfall percolates underground to contaminate both ground and surface waters. Residues of flame retardants persist in sewage treatment effluent released into rivers, lakes, and oceans. […] Flame retardants are  now detectable in  whales, in polar bears, and in many species of  fish and marine mammals, demonstrating  the global scale of movement and  contamination”.

“Pollutants entering the deep sea are deposited in sediments and can readilyaccumulate in the food chain. Studies on deep-sea organisms have reported higher concentrations than in nearby surface-water species.
However, although these studies are described as ‘deep sea’, they rarely extend beyond the continental shelf (<2,000 m), so contamination at greater distances from shore and at extreme depths is hitherto unknown”.

“Flame retardant chemicals are known to bevery persistant, have a long-standing impact on the environment. Some of them have been found to exhibit traits congruents with those of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Scientific researches has been detecting a high propensity forbioaccumalation in the fatty tissue of living organism and toxicity to both humans and wildlife”.

Flame retardants migrate to arctic sediment


“Organophosphate ester (OPEs) flame retardants travel long distances and researchers have measured them in Arctic Ocean sediments.


As concerns grew over PBDEs, manufacturers turned to OPEs as alternative flame retardants, but scientists are concerned that these replacements may also meet the Stockholm Convention’scriteria for POPs.


Not much is known about the human health effects of OPEs, yet some governments have listed them as cancer-causing agents, and in vitro and animal data suggest that the compounds may be endocrine disrupters—so they may meet the criterion of toxicity.


They do not appear to increase in concentration as they move up the food chain, although like the brominated retardants they are replacing, OPEs readily escape into the environment and have been found in fish and in human breast milk, research shows”.

Frozen Landscape

Many organizations, including the U.S. EPA and the United Nations, have expressed concerns about consumers’ continued exposure to these hazardous flame retardants through reincorporation of recycled materials into new products. “Millions of pounds of foam that is flame retarded with pentaBDE or an alternative have been, and will be, sold and used in homes throughout the United States as carpet cushions. 

Direct exposure to millions of consumers from these sources is possible,” warned the EPA in 2005. EPA explained, “as carpet padding ages, foam dust will be generated and become airborne with traffic on carpet. This presents a particular exposure potential for children, who spend time on the floor.” Additionally, the flame retardants volatilize and are deposited onto household dust, which creates further potential exposure.

2016 study indicates that inhalation is also a significant exposure route for several of the replacement flame retardants.

Signing a Contract

The “San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame Retardants” addresses the growing concern in the scientific community about the persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic properties of brominated and chlorinated organic flame retardants.


The consensus statement has over 200 signatories from 30 countries, representing expertise on health, environment and fire safety.


The statement was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, December 2010.

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