The burning question: can the world save itself from flame retardants?
Flame retardants (FRs) save lives by delaying or preventing blazes in a huge range of everyday household items. But many are bioaccumulative and persistent in the global environment – and firmly linked to a long list of adverse health effects. In this article, we explain the environmental and health impact of FRs, the rapidly-changing regulatory and testing picture, and how researchers are already exploring options for a safer future.
The world uses around two million tonnes of flame retardants every year – chiefly in the construction, electrical, and electronics industries, as well as the production of plastics, furniture, toys, and textiles. Buoyed by developing electricity infrastructure in emerging markets and increased official focus on fire safety in territories like the US and the Asia Pacific region, the global market for FRs is expected to grow from US$ 8.5 billion in 2022 to more than $15 billion in 2030. Brominated and chlorinated products – including short chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs), medium chain chlorinated paraffins (MCCPs), hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) – are the single biggest segment of the market, and could account for around 36% of all FRs in use by the end of the decade. Nevertheless, the security and economic advantages that FRs bring are increasingly being overshadowed by their environmental and health impacts - with “proper balancing” of their harms and benefits, increasing regulation, and the search for safer alternatives all part of today’s debate.
‘Exposure is unavoidable’
Earlier this year, an expert panel convened by the UK government summed up the environmental and health impact of flame retardants: “Exposure is unavoidable”.
“Many flame retardants are bioaccumulative and persistent, particularly those containing bromine and chlorine,” it went on. “They are found in air and dust, food and drinking water, and on indoor surfaces and textiles where they can be absorbed through dermal contact. They are found in homes, offices, schools, public buildings, vehicles, and natural environments (in rivers, lakes, oceans, sediments and mammals, fish, and birds) from the poles to the equator.”
A US research study published this summer underlined the threat to future generations from FRs – identifying traces of 25 kinds of toxic brominated flame retardant (BFRs) in all 50 breast milk samples taken from mothers across the country. Moreover, in a disturbing echo of the discovery of PFAS in the blood of Arctic polar bears in 2012, scientists this year revealed that 70 per cent of four primate species living in Uganda’s Kibale National Park had ‘significant levels’ of BFRs in their faeces. “Unfortunately for these primates the benefits of inhabiting a 'protected' area do not really include protection from chemical pollution,” said study lead author Tina Steiniche.
The primate study further identified that females and their young were most affected by the pollutants – associating them with higher levels of stress and reproductive hormones. Several other research studies have also linked BFRs with disruption to the human endocrine system, altered stress responses, and birth defects – but this is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to the health problems that FRs cause. As the UK expert panel puts it: “There are hundreds of scientific papers reporting deleterious effects of flame retardants. These effects include developmental, behavioural, and neurotoxic effects, endocrine disrupting effects, impact on sex and thyroid hormones, carbohydrate & lipid metabolism, diabetes risk, adipogenesis, obesity, and reproduction. Some flame retardants are reported to be carcinogenic and some studies report effects on DNA damage or changes in DNA methylation. Other studies have reported cardiotoxicity and cardiac abnormalities, hepatotoxicity, hearing, corneal cell damage, allergic, immune, and kidney effects.”
In addition to their ubiquity and hazardous nature, flame retardants present a number of specific problems for a world looking to limit their effects. One is that they “are problematic at all stages of the lifecycle: in manufacturing, everyday use, during fires, recycling ... and disposal”, and can enter the environment via industrial wastewater, volatilisation, leaching, and combustion. Also, while brominated and chlorinated FRs are inherently persistent and bioaccumulative, other halogenated flame retardants are mixed, and not chemically bound, to products – and so leach from household goods, or following disposal in landfills. This, of course, only adds to the environmental burden caused by older, banned flame retardants such as PBDEs.
Get ready for more regulation
All of this means that the current crop of FRs are very likely to come under close scientific and regulatory scrutiny in the coming years. As Professor Frank Kelly, of the UK expert panel, warns: “There are longstanding concerns about the effectiveness of flame retardants and the health risks associated with them... This needs to change (and) there has to be a proper balancing of the harms and benefits.”
In the US, individual states have started to ban or restrict products containing halogenated FRs - including furniture, mattresses and electrical goods in New York, Delaware and Washington. Others – including the authors of the breast milk survey – say more needs to be done to regulate BFRs at a federal level, arguing: “The production and use of these compounds continues, and they are likely to impact children’s health until governments require companies to end their use and switch to safer solutions.”
The EU addresses BFRs via a number of programmes - including REACH and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, while chlorinated flame retardants are under even closer scrutiny. For example, MCCPs are labelled ‘Substances of Very High Concern’ under REACH, and SCCPs are severely restricted. Despite this, more new regulation of FRs is expected in Europe – with the European Chemicals Agency proposing further restrictions on MCCPs, and planned curbs on “all aromatic brominated flame retardants... confirmed to be persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic”.
The response from research and industry
The likelihood of further regulation means scientists and manufacturers are already looking forward to another new generation of flame retardants. Last year, North America’s second-largest consumer electronics firm, Best Buy, stopped using halogenated FRs in its own brand televisions and adopted safer alternatives. Meanwhile, according to one research paper, “the demand to design and develop economically viable non-halogenated reactive FRs... has piqued the interest of material chemists.” The leading alternatives currently include phosphorous and nitrogen-containing compounds that inhibit flames by forming a protective char or by releasing free radicals, and are not considered toxic, persistent or bioaccumulative. These ‘green’ credentials also mean that halogen-free FRs have not yet raised any regulatory concerns, and are therefore key to the future profitability of the FR industry.
LGC Standards – helping to keep your flame retardant analysis on track
Increasing regulation of the world’s flame retardants, and the emergence of new products, will present analytical laboratories with a myriad of testing challenges – but we’re here to help.
LGC Standards offers the largest portfolio of flame retardant reference standards on the market - with almost 800 products available within the EU, and 550 globally.
Unlike others, we cover halogenated, phosphorous-containing, nitrogen-containing and metal flame retardants – giving you the confidence that you can find everything you need for your analytical testing in one place. The range of our portfolio not only enables you to comply with global regulatory analytical requirements, but also supports research into flame retardant metabolism and environmental impacts, as well as the development of safer alternatives to halogenated FRs.
Our five decades of experience in designing high-quality reference materials means we can constantly innovate – creating products that both keep you up-to-date with changing global regulations but also save you time and paperwork.
Many of our flame retardant single solutions, neats and mixtures are ISO 17034 and 17025- accredited - including our market-leading PBB Mix 5, which enables the screening of 23 analytes in one run, and ships with a comprehensive Certificate of Analysis detailing total combined uncertainty.