What has been the most surprising thing you've learned from your research?
We published an article in 2011 on flame retardants in baby products, that included things like car seats, strollers, mattress pads, and nursing pillows. I remember we found flame retardants in a bath mat, which was certainly unexpected. But as a result of that research study, and other research conducted at the time, the state of California exempted several baby products from the furniture flammability standard. So today, they’re not applied as often as they were five years ago.
When you study all this stuff, how do you live your daily life without being afraid of everything?
I get asked that question often. I try to think about it logically because there are risks in everything you do. For example, if you eat smoked salmon or a burger, or every time you put something on a grill, you’re potentially introducing carcinogenic PAHs to that food item. There are hazards out there that you can’t control. What we need to do is minimize them when we can. I think it’s important to conduct research and accumulate data to understand where we need flame retardants and where we do not… that’s certainly a motivation for me. In terms of myself and my two young children, if I can avoid products with flame retardants, I do. Also, we know from several of our research studies that people who wash their hands more frequently have lower concentrations of flame retardants in their body. We touch so many things that are treated, so washing your hands can minimize exposure.
Everything that is produced eventually winds up in the waste stream and into our soil. What can you say about the environmental impact of flame retardants?
PBDEs are a perfect example here. They were phased out starting in 2005, but there are still plenty of products out there that still have PBDEs. When people discard their sofas, for example, they end up going to the waste stream, and some of that ends up being re-released back into the environment. It can contaminate the soil, wildlife, and even mobilize into the air and be transported on regional scales. In fact, this has already occurred. PBDEs have been detected in both polar regions. Studies also suggest that as PBDE levels are reduced in the indoor environment, they will increase in our food supply because they are present in the environment in air and soil. Our exposure will change from an indoor/dust pathway to a dietary pathway. Unfortunately, PBDEs are very hard to break down and remove.
This interview was in response to “Results from Screening Polyurethane Foam Based Consumer Products for Flame Retardant Chemicals: Assessing Impacts on the Change in the Furniture Flammability Standards,” a study conducted by Ellen M. Cooper, Gretchen Kroeger, Katherine David, Charlotte R. Clark, P. Lee Ferguson and Heather M. Stapleton. To read their findings, click here.