Smoke inhalation and toxic gases kill more people during fires than burn injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And some flame retardants--chemicals used to treat carpets, upholstery, curtains and other products to slow the progression of visible flames--may actually make the air in a fire even more deadly, according to a study presented this past March at the American Chemical Society's National Meeting in San Diego.
Widespread retardant, deadly gases
The study examined the most-widely used category of flame retardants, which contain the chemical bromine, part of a group of elements known as halogens.
"Halogen-based flame retardants are effective in reducing the ignitability of materials," said lead author Anna Stec, PhD, a lecturer in chemistry and fire science with the University of Central Lancashire, Centre for Fire and Hazards Science, Lancashire, U.K. "We found, however, that flame retardants have the undesirable effect of increasing the amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide released during combustion. These gases, not the thermal effects of burns on the body, are the number one cause of fire deaths." Hydrogren cyanide is the predominant deadly toxin in fire smoke, up to 35 times more toxic than carbon monoxide, according to the Fire Smoke Coalition.
The scientists also tested mineral-based fire retardants and intumescent agents. The mineral-based retardants had little effect of fire toxicity and most of the intumescent agents actually reduced the amount of potentially toxic gases released in a fire.
Even before a fire begins, brominated, or halogenated, fire retardants can cause ill health effects. These chemicals have been shown to cause reproductive, developmental, neurological and endocrine disorders, with babies and young children especially at risk, as chronicled in a September 2011 article by Elizabeth Grossman in Yale Environment 360, and in this Environmental Health Perspectives Q&A with Heather Stapleton, PhD, assistant professor of environmental chemistry at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. Children's sleepwear, mattresses, car seats, and plastics in computers, televisions, and even smoke detectors are some of the other products treated with these flame retardants.
Unless you're building a new home from the ground up, though, it may be impossible to find a home free of brominated retardant. A nationwide test of household dust by the Environmental Working Group, found unexpectedly high levels of these neurotoxic chemicals in every home sampled, according to a 2004 report. And Californians have higher levels of halogenated dust in their homes and body fluids than residents of others states, according to the Green Science Policy Institute, because of furniture flammability requirements.
So it may not be surprising that a 2003 study by the CDC found that these toxins can be found in the bodies of almost 100 percent of the U.S. population. There's currently no federal regulations on the worst of these retardants, which also go by the name polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs), though 12 states have regulated their use in consumer products.
Saving your breath during a fire
Reducing your exposure to these neurotoxins during a fire, can amount to a bit of practice. When running through your home fire evacuation plan, have family members remain low or crawl to safety and cover their nose and mouth. If there is a fire, these steps will be second nature and will reduce smoke inhalation. The U.S. Fire Administration offers these and other guidelines on how to escape a fire safely on its website.
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The Green Policy Institute offers a Safe Kid's Buyers Guide for limiting your child's exposure to flame retardants in products.