Simply put, a flame retardant is any chemical used by manufacturers to make a product resistant to fire. The original intent was to keep the more flammable materials in houses and buildings safe in case of sparks, heat, or other things that may cause fires. Unfortunately, the chemicals used to make objects flame resistant are toxic, and they can be hiding everywhere. Fabric is the most likely suspect: curtains, carpets, upholstery on furniture, bedspreads, mattresses, and clothing.
If you think you can simply wash out these flame retardant chemicals when you buy the product, think again. Manufacturers bake them deep into the fabrics where they will stay for years, washing or not. How toxic these retardants are depends on the compounds used. Some will simply release VOCs like toluene, benzene, formaldehyde, ethyl benzene, styrene, and acetone into the air where they can be breathed in and cause kidney and lung damage over time. Others have more sinister ingredients: PBDEs, which can cause brain damage, among other disorders, and p-Dichlorobenzene, a known carcinogen.
Fortunately, more companies are beginning to offer increasingly more alternatives to synthetic and processed fabrics with fire retardants. Look for organic mattresses (OMI is my favorite), natural weave carpets (such as hemp) and healthy window treatment options (like bamboo).
Not For Kids
While flame retardants can be dangerous for adults, they hold even more danger for kids. Those PBDEs, along with phthalates, dioxins, and several other chemicals, can act as gender-bending agents, a group of compounds known to block, alter, or mimic the actions of hormones in children and infants, leadings a number of sexual and reproductive disorders. Combine this with the other toxic effects of flame retardants, and the results are more than alarming. Even worse, fabrics made for kids are coated even more heavily with flame retardants than most, including bedspreads, pajamas (characters and movie heroes), stuffed animals, and other toys.
Keeping a flame-retardant free home is an excellent idea, but be sure to follow through on the process. Getting rid of synthetic and chemical-coated carpet is fine, but it will not be very effective if you and your loved ones are still sleeping on a flame retardant-coated mattress.