Primer

Brominated Flame Retardants

Keeping furnishings, appliances, and building materials from catching fire and burning up is important, but many flame retardants aren't good for us or the environment.

May 29, 2009

Keeping things from catching fire and burning up is a good idea, especially when those things are parts of our buildings or the furnishings we put in our buildings. Flame retardants—chemicals added to products either during manufacture or afterwards—are one of the ways we make products more resistant to igniting or burning (see EBN June 2004).

The problem is that some flame retardants, particularly brominated compounds, aren’t good for us or for the environment. Back in the early 1970s in Michigan, a polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) flame retardant was accidentally mixed with livestock feed and hundreds of thousands of cows and other livestock had to be destroyed, leading to the banning of PBBs. So manufacturers switched to a chemically very similar class of compounds, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), that weren’t known to be toxic.