The risk of fire loss represents an ever-present threat to property and personal health across civilizations and throughout human history. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that Americans lost $130 million annually from fires in the 1990s, in addition to 460 deaths and 1,110 fire-related injuries. Additionally, the risk of fire-related loss and injury has risen since 2020 due to increased time spent at home (e.g., working from home and cooking and eating at home) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are flame retardants?
Flame retardants are chemicals that are added to products to decrease their flammability. Beginning in the 1970s, many commercial and consumer goods manufacturers began adding flame retardants to their products to lessen the risk of property loss and injury from fires.
Manufacturers have added flame retardants to common products like furniture, electronics, vehicle interiors, baby products, and construction materials. Although the goal of this action was to protect consumers from fire hazards, many producers did so without studying the impact that these chemicals have on human health and the environment.
Types of hazardous flame retardants
While there are hundreds of chemicals that act as flame retardants, and many are safe, research has shown that some of the most prominent chemicals are hazardous to human health. These chemicals do not break down in the environment and accumulate through the food chain, meaning that they build up in animals, potentially resulting in human exposure through the food they eat.
Health risks associated with exposure to flame retardants
The National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) has reported that exposure to flame retardants can be directly linked to the following health effects:
- Poor fetal and child development
- Lowered neurological function
- Endocrine disruption
- Reproductive effects
- Lowered immunity to diseases
Brominated flame retardant chemicals
One class of chemicals, the brominated flame retardants, have been considered chemicals of concern since the 1970s. These retardants contain the element bromine and are the most effective and common class of flame retardant used by manufacturers. However, some brominated flame retardants have been directly tied to adverse health effects, including endocrine disruption. Since there are many chemicals in the class of brominated flame retardants and more being developed over time, government regulators need a broader understanding of the health effects of the class to gather insights into their human health risks. To better understand the toxicity of this class of chemicals, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) of the NIEHS sought the help of RTI’s Analytical Laboratory Science Division.
Setting toxicity threshold for brominated flame retardants
RTI is a leader in solving complex product safety issues and developing methods to analyze toxic chemicals. Our analytical team supported in vivo toxicology studies of the compounds contained in mixtures of brominated flame retardants. Most manufacturers produce flame retardants based on existing chemicals that are known to be toxic with slight changes to the chemical structure to maintain their physical properties while avoiding regulation. In response, we developed a versatile method to analyze a range of brominated compounds. We provided dose formulations of selected test chemicals to the NTP for use in their studies. Our work not only helped the NTP study the toxic effects of these chemicals, but it also provided the scientific community with a streamlined approach for measuring the chemicals in organisms and the environment.
Our work allowed NTP to determine the toxic effects of brominated flame retardants, providing a better understanding of their risks to human health. RTI has partnered with the NTP since 1984 to provide chemical analyses that inform their studies on hundreds of toxic chemicals. The work we did with brominated flame retardants furthers our mission to improve the human condition by informing government decisions around toxic chemicals and aligns with our ongoing commitments to promote public health with science-informed solutions.
Learn more about our Analytical Laboratory Science capabilities.