What are they?
Flame retardants are a group of chemicals that are added to a variety of different products to help them meet flammability standards. These standards were set back in the 70s, and we have learned a lot since then about flammability, chemicals, and even the health hazards of cigarette smoking (which used to be a large cause of indoor fires).
What can they do to me?
Scientists, researchers, doctors, health professionals, and even firefighters don't like flame retardants because of how difficult they are to break down and how long they stay in our bodies. As flame retardants accumulate in our bodies, they can cause problems like cancers, decreased fertility in both men and women, impacts on the immune system, disruption to the regulation and creation of hormones, and lower IQ and hyperactivity in kids. (1)
Where is this stuff?
These chemicals are in all sorts of products. They are in furniture with foam padding like couches and chairs, car seats, baby mattresses, airplanes, foam blocks at gyms, construction materials like wires and insulation, and even electronics. Basically anything near people that might catch fire easily or get very warm and overheat.
Another common place people often don't realize they are exposed to flame retardants is in the dust that just naturally happens… because life. Flame retardants are one of the biggest culprits of ending up in dust because of how they are added to products. They tend to be sprayed on or added at the end, as opposed to actually being built into or stuck on the product, meaning they easily escape from the products.
How can I stay safe?
Depending on the product, there are different ways to limit your exposure to flame retardants. When it comes to furniture, look for options, especially couches, that are flame retardant free. Furniture or kids products that are filled with wool or polyester instead of foam can often meet updated standards without needing to add flame retardants at all.
In your home, another good habit is to clean with a wet microfiber cloth and vacuum regularly, with a HEPA filter vacuum if you can. Both microfiber cloths and vacuums are very good at actually collecting dust, removing it from the air and your home, and keeping it from just circulating and landing somewhere else in your home as you clean.
Washing your hands regularly, especially before you eat, is another great way to remove and limit your unintended contact with flame retardant chemicals.
1) National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Flame retardants. National Institutes of Health. 2016. Viewed August 12, 2016.