Which Chemicals Are in House Dust?

Flame retardant chemicals found in household dust in a small study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Flame retardants were once commonly used in furniture. But the chemicals were phased out when researchers discovered they could contribute to health problems. So are they completely gone now?

Apparently not. Two of the chemicals were only phased out in 2004, and many products made before then could still have flame retardant chemicals in them.

A recent small study of house dust in 16 California homes found that half had 41 different flame retardants. Some of these chemicals are banned and others are not.

You can reduce your exposure to these chemicals by regularly vacuuming and washing your hands.

"Vacuum your home regularly."

The study, led by Robin E. Dodson, of the Silent Spring Institute, looked at how common flame retardants were in homes in 2006 and 2011.

The researchers tested 16 homes for 62 different types of flame retardants and related chemicals. The homes were located in two San Francisco Bay Area communities and two samples of house dust from each home were collected with specially designed vacuum cleaners.

Their tests included looking for two chemicals that were banned in 2004 called PentaBDE and OctBDE as well as other flame retardant chemicals.

They found that eight of the samples they collected contained 41 different flame retardant chemicals. The chemicals found in the highest concentration included TCEP and TDCIPP, both listed as carcinogens in California but not with the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Five of the chemicals they found in homes were at levels higher than guidelines for those substances issued by the EPA. Those chemicals included BDE 47, BDE 99, TCEP, TDCIPP and BB 153.

In 12 of the homes (75 percent) included in the study, the researchers found residue in house dust of TDBPP, a carcinogen that used to be used in children's sleepwear until it was banned in 1977.

The researchers also found higher levels of chemicals used in the flame retardant Firemaster 550 in the homes during 2011 compared to 2006. These compounds include EH-TBB, BEH-TEBP and TPHP, which have been used to replace PentaBDE after PentaBDE was banned.

Flame retardants have been linked to a number of health problems, including cancer and endocrine, fertility, neurological and developmental issues.

However, not all of these chemicals have been tested for health problems. This study is limited by the small sample size in just one geographical area and by the fact that the researchers could not link each chemical found to the source of it, such as furniture or electronic equipment.

In addition, there is not enough data available regarding the safety of all these chemicals and the amounts that are regarded as safe.

Any substance can be unsafe in the body if there is too much of it (including oxygen and water), and nearly every chemical can be harmless if it's in a small enough concentration.

It is possible that many of these chemicals exist in small enough levels that they are not harmful. Others occurred at levels not recommended by the EPA.

"Results highlight the evolving nature of flame retardant exposures and suggest that manufacturers continue to use hazardous chemicals and replace chemicals of 24 concern with chemicals with uncharacterized toxicity," the authors wrote.

“Our study found that people are exposed to toxic flame retardants every day," said co-author Robin Dodson in a release about the study. "It is troubling to see that a majority of homes have at least one flame retardant at levels beyond what the federal government says is safe."

Aside from hand-washing and vacuuming, people can reduce their exposure to these chemicals by fixing rips in furniture, using non-flame-resistant pajamas for children and using products made of wool, polyester, cotton and down, which are naturally flame-resistant.

The study was published November 28 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The research was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, New York Community Trust, Art beCAUSE Breast Cancer Foundation and the Fine Fund. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 26, 2012
Last Updated:
December 31, 2013