False Promises and Hidden Dangers of Toxic Flame Retardants


Flame Retardants are a class of chemicals added to furniture, electronics, and building materials intended to help prevent fire. They have been used in consumer and industrial products since the 1970s ² and are now abundant in the environment. Despite the chemical industry’s claims, many flame retardants are unnecessary, don’t work well, and are poisonous¹. The original study claiming the effectiveness of flame retardants has proven to have been “grossly distorted” and not based on real-world conditions. The chemical industry manipulated scientific findings to promote the widespread use of flame retardants and downplay the health risks, especially to children. 17



Flame retardants are often added or applied in:

  • Furnishings, such as foam, upholstery, mattresses, carpets, curtains, and fabric blinds.
  • Building and construction materials, such as electrical wires and cables.
  • Insulation materials, such as polystyrene and polyurethane insulation foams.


Flame retardants penetrate our bodies through what we eat, drink and breath. One of the biggest dangers is that they bioaccumulate over time, causing long-term chronic health problems as bodies contain increasing levels of these toxic chemicals. Flame Retardants have been shown to cause neurological damage, hormone disruption, and cancer1.



There are hundreds of flame retardants. In general, flame retardants are grouped into 2 classes: halogenated and non-halogenated.7 While halogenated flame retardants pose the most health concerns there are some flame retardants that are halogen-free that should also be used carefully.  


  • Brominated flame retardants — Contain bromine and are the most abundantly used flame retardants.9
    • PBDE – Polybrominated diphenyl ethers do not chemically bind with the products to which they are added (furniture, electronics, etc.) so they easily release from these products and enter air and dust. Concerns include low birth weight/length of children, and neurological development. Although PBDEs were phased out in 2004, the chemicals remain in the environment from older products still in use and being discarded.
    • TBBPA – Tetrabromobisphenol A is widely used to make computer circuit boards and electronics. Also used in some textiles and paper, or as an additive in other flame retardants2. TBBPA is on the Proposition 65 list because it can cause cancer.  Exposure to TBBPA may increase the risk of cancer. During pregnancy, TBBPA can pass from mother to baby21.
    • HBCD – Hexabromocyclododecane is an additive primarily used in polystyrene foam building materials. The primary risk to humans is from leaching out of products and getting into indoor dust or food products2. Health concerns of HBCD exposure include alterations in the immune and reproductive systems, neurotoxic effects, and endocrine disruption22.


  • OPFRs – Organophosphate flame retardants have been used as a substitute for PBDEs2, but studies suggest short-term reproductive and developmental toxicity concerns10.


16 U.S. states have adopted over 45 policies limiting toxic flame retardants, mostly focused on consumer electronics. 1 However, efforts to restrict flame retardants in the construction industry remain insufficient. Initiatives like the Building Product Ecosystem and the Safer Insulation Solution project aim to remove hazardous flame retardants from foam insulation while maintaining fire safety in buildings, collaborating with organizations and working on codes for California and international standards. 18



To avoid toxic flame retardants in materials:

  • When spec’ing furniture, fabrics and wallcoverings, ****select products that “CONTAIN NO ADDED FLAME RETARDANTS” or look for a TB117-2013 label.19
  • Avoid combustible materials where feasible. Instead of using inherently flammable materials that have to be treated with flame retardants, such as foamed-plastic insulation, use nonflammable materials like fiberglass or mineral wool insulation. (To avoid energy penalty for such substitutions, thicker walls may be needed.)
  • Avoid foam insulation where feasible and where there will not be energy penalties.
    • Most foam insulation today is made with halogenated flame retardants. Ask manufacturers to provide assurance that halogenated flame retardants are not used.
    • Polyisocyanurate and spray polyurethane insulation is typically made with TCPP, which contains chlorine rather than bromine and is potentially less of a health and environmental risk.
    • Rigid fiberglass, rigid mineral-wool, and all cavity-fill insulation (fiberglass, mineral wool, and cellulose) are made without halogenated flame retardants. 20
  • Avoid polyurethane foam carpet padding and remove polyurethane foam insulation from beneath carpeting. 20
  • Avoid rebonded carpet padding made from recycled or scrap polyurethane foam. 19
  • Avoid foam cushioning in furniture in favor of mesh. If polyurethane foam is used, specify foam with no halogenated flame retardants. 20

Watch this 3 minute video featuring a documentary on the history of flame retardants and the chemical industry’s marketing campaign of deception that led to prevalence of these chemicals in our society today. 


Bhavishya Kambhampati is a dedicated designer currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Fine Arts with a major in Interior Design at SCAD University. With a passion for conservation, restoration, sustainable materials, and architecture, she actively explores innovative approaches to integrate organic elements into her work, such as creating paint pigments from flower petals and leaves. Bhavishya’s commitment to sustainability and her belief in the cyclic nature of life drive her both personally and professionally.


Having previously obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Engineering, Bhavishya’s profound love for design prompted her transition into the field where she truly belongs. As a self-taught artist and designer, she effortlessly combines her technical expertise with her innate creative abilities, allowing her to continually refine her skills and shape her goals with unwavering dedication.


  1. https://www.saferstates.org/toxic-chemicals/toxic-flame-retardants/
  2. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/flame_retardants/index.cfm
  3. https://toxicfreefuture.org/research/flame-retardants-tvs/
  4. https://toxicfreefuture.org/healthy-choices/top-tips-avoiding-toxic-flame-retardants-home/
  5. https://toxicfreefuture.org/press-room/us-consumer-product-safety-commission-warns-consumers-avoid-furniture-kids-products-mattresses-and-electronics-containing-toxic-flame-retardant-chemicals/
  6. https://toxicfreefuture.org/press-room/best-buy-restricts-toxic-chemicals-in-its-exclusive-brand-televisions/
  7. https://www.greenspec.co.uk/building-design/halogenated-flame-retardants-environment-health/https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/update/2015/2/science-flameretardant/
  8. https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/whatwestudy/assessments/cancer/ongoing/hfr/index.html
  9. https://www.healthandenvironment.org/environmental-health/environmental-risks/chemical-environment-overview/flame-retardants#:~:text=organophosphorus%20flame%20retardants.-,Brominated%20Flame%20Retardants,found%20in%20humans%20and%20animals.
  10. https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/results/pubs/posters/witchey_sot20210312.pdf
  11. https://www.flameretardantfacts.com/about-flame-retardants/regulations/
  12. https://fireresistantwood.org/Technical-Resources/Building-Codes
  13. https://fireresistantwood.org/Why-FR-Wood/FR-Treating-vs-Coating
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2367656/
  15. https://toxicfreefuture.org/blog/toxic-flame-retardants-dont-even-work-as-advertised/
  16. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKye9txD__g&t=242s
  17. https://www.chicagotribune.com/investigations/ct-xpm-2012-05-09-ct-met-flames-science-20120509-story.html
  18. https://healthybuilding.net/blog/427-cracking-the-building-code-on-flame-retardants
  19. https://www.sixclasses.org/videos/flame-retardants
  20. https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/flame-retardants-under-fire/checklist/1
  21. https://www.p65warnings.ca.gov/fact-sheets/tetrabromobisphenol-tbbpa#:~:text=TBBPA is on the Proposition,about exposures to listed chemicals.
  22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3440131/#:~:text=Health concerns of HBCD exposure,neurotoxic effects%2C and endocrine disruption.