Flame Retardants Pose Special Risk to Firefighters

There have been a lot of headlines in recent months about "Killer Couches," discussing the negative health effects of flame retardant chemicals in furniture and home electronics.  A new study finds the greatest danger may be to firefighters.  A small group of San Francisco firefighters displayed high blood levels of the chemicals, which are linked to cancer and other diseases.  Firefighters were already known to have elevated rates of several cancers.

Dr. Susan Shaw, the study's lead author, says the chemicals don't provide enough benefit to make the risks worthwhile.  "We hear the words 'flame retardant' and we think those chemicals are doing a good thing," she says.  "But at the levels they are in products, they are not delaying the fires that much, and what they're doing is adding toxicity to our homes, and to firefighters when the chemicals burn."

Governor Brown and California regulators are working on a plan to reduce or eliminate the chemicals, which current state law mandates in many products.  Although many other states don't have the same requirements, manufacturers have made the California standard has become the de facto national standard. 

Dr. Shaw says firefighters could also reduce their exposure by wearing respirators and other protective equipment at fire scenes, even after the fire is out and the smoke is gone. "Our study found about half of firefighters didn't wear their equipment all the time because it's very awkward and it's hard to see with that stuff on," she says. "After the blaze is gone and they're cleaning up, they take off the respirators, and have exposure during that cleanup."

Highlights of the study are here: Firefighter Study Highlights


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