PFAS-coated clothes that are thrown away will often end up either incinerated or in landfill. Unless incinerated at very high temperatures (>1000oC), fluorinated polymers could release more harmful PFAS during burning. PFAS of environmental concern have also been found in landfill leachate. PFAS is found in treated waste water from industrial and domestic sources and has been found in both rivers and groundwater. Conventional drinking water processes will not remove PFAS.Small quantities of PFAS will be removed during wash and wear of products containing PFAS. This includes fluorinated polymers used on stain-resistant coatings, and non-polymers that remain on clothes after production (Lassen et al. 2015).Non-polymer PFAS can build up in blood protein of animals, and is not always removed quickly. This means that predators eating PFAS-contaminated food will have higher levels in their bloodstream, and concentrations can increase up the food chain. Studies suggest that build up of PFAS is similar to those of other Persistent Organic Pollutants such as DDT.PFAS are estimated to be settling in arctic regions at rates of tens to hundreds of kilograms per year (25-850kg per year), depending on the specific PFAS chemical in question. Certain PFAS are released as gases to the environment and are blown a long way by wind and air currents in the atmosphere,. These gas PFAS will over time degrade to more persistent chemicals like PFOS and PFOA. This may be one reason why PFAS of environmental concern have been found in remote regions such as the Arctic as well as near PFAS production sitesPFAS including PFOS and PFOA have been found in air samples around Europe. The chemicals are found in small quantities, but appear in almost all samples tested. PFAS enters the atmosphere both from factories and the air inside our homes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17554424 Non-polymer PFAS are used in the production of fluorinated polymers. The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes generally releases these PFASs into the environment, both by air and water emissions. They are very hard to remove during water treatment. Workers in textiles factories are some of the population most exposed to these potentially harmful chemicals.

Flame Retardants

Flame Retardants

 

At Fidra, we’ve been looking into chemical pollutants of high environmental concern, and across the globe, flame retardants often top the list. Flame retardants are used in buildings, cars, electronics and furniture, where they are added to plastic and foams to try to stop the spread of fires. But these chemicals leak out of plastic and foam during use and disposal, getting into the environment. Once in the environment flame retardants don’t break down, in fact they are building up in people and wildlife around the world.  Fidra focuses on the flame retardants in everyday products like mattresses and mobile phones, finding ways to stop them leaving a toxic legacy.

Furniture, mattresses and soft furnishings

The UK currently has some of the most onerous fire safety regulations worldwide for furniture and furnishings, yet our fire safety record mirrors that of countries with no regulations1. Time and again reports and reviews have discredited the opinion that our regulations lead to fewer fire deaths2,3. What they do achieve, is a much higher application of chemical flame retardants that have been linked to a wide range of health and environmental problems.

Electronics

Electronic equipment contains high quantities of chemical flame retardants; some TV casings contain so many harmful flame retardants that they make up almost one third of the total plastics weight. Flame retardants known to impact our hormones and cause cancer can leak out of electronics into our homes and bodies and impact the environment. When electronics are thrown away the problems continue.  Flame retardants make responsible recycling more difficult and expensive,  and new products made with recycled material have been found to contain the harmful flame retardants used in electronics. Incinerating electronics can release toxins that are more harmful than the original chemical, and leaching from landfill and recycling sites is another route for theses toxic chemicals into waterways and the atmosphere.

How flame retardants impact our health and environment

What does a sofa, a spatula and a sea bird have in common? 

Flame retardants leach out of the products we fill our homes with, forming dust we can’t help but breath in and ingest. We find flame retardants, unfit for human consumption, in kitchen utensils and food packaging because our recycling has been contaminated with electronic waste. When split by demographic, research repeatedly shows highest intake in young infants, followed by toddlers, then older children4; we’ve found flame retardants in breast milk5. They escape from manufacturing facilities, our homes and disposal facilities, where they persist in the environment and concentrate up food chains. They have been found in wildlife across the globe, from penguins in the south to polar bears in the north6,7. There are flame retardants in the eggshells of the Bass Rock gannets, long-term neighbours of Fidra’s hometown, North Berwick.

Are we any closer to safer furniture?

Our current ‘furniture and furnishings regulations’ were established in 1988 and, despite being recommended for update as far back as 2010 and acknowledged by the government to be ineffective in 2014, remain untouched. The past ten years have seen two proposed revisions, two public consultations and the promise of a third, accusations of misconduct and covert lobbying and a whistleblowing case brought forward by the former lead civil servant on the review. And still we are no closer to updating the original regulations.

How we tackle flame retardants

To protect ourselves, future generations and our environment, we need to reduce our reliance on these harmful chemicals.

Current regulations are insufficient in safeguarding the environment, we need sound chemical management for a healthy and functioning circular economy. This should include an end to the unnecessary use of chemicals and an end to the use of chemicals of concern for all non-essential functions as well as transparent and accessible information for all on the chemicals used. We need to know about the chemicals in our products whether we are a manufacturer, consumer or recycler.  Information about chemicals in products can inform decisions at the point sale as well as in reuse, recycling and disposal.

We are highlighting the threat flame retardants pose to people, wildlife and a circular economy, and highlighting ways we can stop these chemicals limiting both reuse and recycling and prevent them contaminating recycled products. Fidra submitted written evidence on the impacts of flame retardants in electronics to the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and were invited to give oral evidence to MPs  in June 2020 on how we address flame retardant use. We also submitted evidence to this on this Select Committee’s Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life inquiry, which highlighted the issues with UK furniture regulations. Furniture regulations were set up with the intention to protect life, however the reality is ineffective fire safety and increased exposure to harmful chemicals, resulting in a wider threat to society and the environment. Fidra are calling for legislative action that removes the regulatory barriers and allows fire safety to be achieved without toxic chemicals in furniture.

 

What you can do

References

1.           University of Central Lancaster. Cheap chemical flame retardants increase fire deaths.: University of Central Lancaster Press Office; 2017.

2.           ARCADIS. European Commission Health & Consumers DG – Identification and evaluation of data on flame retardants in consumer products. 2011. 311 p.

3.           ANSES. Opinion of the   French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupation Health & Safety concerning   the “request regarding the fire safety of domestic upholstered furniture “. 2015. p 4.

4.           Malliari E, Kalantzi OI. Children’s exposure to brominated flame retardants in indoor environments – A review. Environ Int 2017;108:146-169.

5.           Fromme H, Becher G, Hilger B, Völkel W. Brominated flame retardants – Exposure and risk assessment for the general population. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health 2016;219(1):1-23.

6.           Wolschke H, Meng X-Z, Xie Z, Ebinghaus R, Cai M. Novel flame retardants (N-FRs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (DL-PCBs) in fish, penguin, and skua from King George Island, Antarctica. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2015;96(1):513-518.

7.           Verreault J, Gabrielsen GW, Chu S, Muir DC, Andersen M, Hamaed A, Letcher RJ. Flame retardants and methoxylated and hydroxylated polybrominated diphenyl ethers in two Norwegian Arctic top predators: glaucous gulls and polar bears. Environ Sci Technol 2005;39(16):6021-8.