Toxic Flame Retardants Aren’t Just Poisoning People Anymore

Scientists discover that bald eagles in the Pacific Northwest are contaminated with high levels of a carcinogenic compound widely used in furniture.

(Photo: Missi Gregorius/Getty Images)

Nov 18, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

The state of Washington in 2011 banned the use of a toxic flame retardant in televisions, computers, and mattresses, but now the carcinogenic compound is showing up in alarming levels in bald and golden eagles, according to a new study.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, were widely used as a flame retardant in furniture and electronics. Over time, PBDE breaks down and attaches itself to dust. When people clean and wash surfaces, the chemical eventually makes its way into the soil and water.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency worked with manufacturers to cease production of most forms of the compound in 2004, but it allowed the continued use of one combination in products used every day—plastics that encase electronics and polyurethane foam found in upholstered chairs, sofas, and mattresses.

After toxicologists with the Washington State Department of Ecology found that PBDEs from those household products were contaminating humans and wildlife, the state passed a ban on the flame retardant in 2008 that became effective in 2011.

“We acted because levels were rising in people and animals, and we wanted to turn that tide before it got to harmful levels,” said Carol Kraege, toxics policy coordinator with the ecology department.

Yet scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have found high levels of the toxic compound in the livers of 40 eagles collected from urban areas of Washington and Idaho, according to a study recently published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

Why are PBDEs appearing years after they were banned?

“They are persistent and bio-cumulative, which means they’re absorbed faster than they scatter, and the higher up the food chain you go, the more they get absorbed,” Kraege said.

Like people, eagles are predators that sit at the top of the food chain. That means by the time they eat, say, a salmon, PBDEs have been accumulating—from the water to insects to small fish to the bigger fish people and eagles eat.

Although the Washington state ban applied to new products, the chemicals remain in old furniture and electronics still in use.

“We’re seeing toxic chemicals show up years after they were banned, so we know they linger for quite some time,” said Kraege. “This is a legacy of using this type of chemical. So we need to think carefully as a society about using them, because once they get out, they are really hard to control.”

The Washington ecology department investigators found that it was not necessary to use flame retardants on foam if a better fire-resistant fiber was available. For plastics, they found alternative retardants that were less toxic and would not bioaccumulate in people and wildlife.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown last year revised a regulation that he originally approved during his first term in the 1970s that required furniture to pass flammability tests. That became a de facto national standard and prompted the widespread use of PBDEs.

The revised regulation does not ban toxic retardants, but it allows manufacturers to line furniture with fire shields and flame-retardant fabrics that do not emit toxic gases. In October, Brown signed into law legislation that requires manufacturers to disclose on a label whether couches and other furniture contain carcinogenic flame retardants.