Toxic Flame Retardants Still in Offices

Polybrominated diphenyl ether found in every office tested in Boston

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) In a study of 31 Boston offices, polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants were found in every office tested. PBDEs are under an international ban as they are toxic. Why is it still there?

No one knows whether PBDEs can hurt you. Their structure, though, is strikingly similar to that of PCBs, which are suspected to cause cancer and definitely alter human development.

PBDEs were once used in electronics, including computers, as well as in the polyurethane foam padding in office chairs, furniture, and carpeting. Additionally, mattresses, mattress pads, foam pillows, couches, easy chairs, carpet padding, office furniture, car seats and other foam items bought before 2005 are quite likely to contain PBDEs.

"Wash your hands and purchase new foam items and computers to limit PBDE exposure."

Lead author Deborah Watkins, a Ph.D. candidate at the Boston University School of Public Health observes that this is the first peer-reviewed research to correlate levels of PBDEs on office worker’s hands to concentrations in their blood. Watkins recommends frequent hand washing as it appears to reduce exposure to certain PBDEs.

She also observes that hand-to-mouth activities like eating oily food without washing your hands allows PBDEs to be absorbed into the bloodstream from skin contact.

Epidemiologic studies have linked exposure PBDE with a myriad of health problems including altering thyroid hormones in people, decreasing fertility in women, lowering testosterone levels in men, brain development deficits in children, and undescended testicles in male babies.

The Environmental Working Group offers some no nonsense tips on how to reduce PBDE exposures:

  1. Replace anything that has a ripped cover or misshapen foam that is breaking down.
  2. Have a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
  3. Replace and do not reupholster foam furniture produced prior to 2005.
  4. Take care when removing old carpet as the padding may contain PBDEs.
  5. When purchasing new foam and computer products, inquire to the manufacturers which type of fire retardants were used. Avoid products with brominated fire retardants.
  6. Beware of older items like car seats and mattress pads because the foam is not completely enclosed in a protective fabric.

The research is published online ahead of print in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 27, 2011
Last Updated:
July 1, 2011