11/28/2012 07:01 EST | Updated 01/28/2013 05:12 EST

Household flame retardants potentially ineffective, dangerous

Some chemical flame retardants used in home furnishings may not help in a house fire, and can pose health hazards, a CBC investigation has found.

A probe conducted by Marketplace tested the effectiveness of chemical retardants in upholstered furniture and also examined their potential health risks. Previous research has cast doubt on the retardants' ability to slow or stop fires, particularly in furniture foam.

Environmental and health researchers are also concerned that some of the chemicals are linked to a wide range of health problems.

Flame retardants are found in a wide array of household items, including upholstered furniture, electronics and children’s toys. The problem, says fire scientist Vyto Babrauskas, is that these supposed lifesavers have no benefit for the average consumer.

“It’s a really sad situation, because [consumers] get enough fire-retardant put in there to do toxic harm to the environment, to the people, and yet it’s not enough to do any good in terms of quenching the fire,” he says. “Flame retardants in the home do not help. That is regrettable, but true.”

Chemical industry’s ‘blatant falsehoods’

The problem isn’t that fire retardants don’t work, Babrauskas says, but that household items typically don’t contain enough retardants to do the job.

In 1987, Babrauskas led a study that found flame retardants can vastly increase escape time from a fire.

Chemical manufacturers point to this study as proof that flame retardants save lives, but Babrauskas says the claims are a “blatant falsehood” and that the industry is “totally misrepresenting what we had done.”

The original test evaluated flame retardants for military use, meaning there was far more fire retardant than used in household items.

Flame retardants can work very well, but only when used in very large amounts, Babrauskas explains. The problem is that more retardants add up to a larger price tag.

“If you are some sort of institution or military … you have a very deep pocketbook, and you can buy exceedingly wonderful fire retardants that completely stop the fire dead in its tracks,” he says.

“That is not what Mr. and Mrs. Consumer get when they go to their local shop and buy some furniture or consumer articles. If they buy furniture which has fire retardants in it, they get an ineffective amount of fire retardant put into the furniture.”

But even small amounts can create a big danger when they burn. Smoke from burning fire retardants can contain elevated amounts of carbon monoxide as well as dioxins and furans, toxic chemicals that can cause immune disorders, liver problems, skin lesions and certain types of cancer.

Dangers in dust

Toxic smoke is just one of the potential threats from chemical flame retardants, since tests have found they pose potential health risks even if they aren’t burning.

“It’s a tremendous problem … that these are really noxious chemicals that are being put in [furniture],” Babrauskas says. “If you have a sofa with that type of a foam, every time you sit up and down on it, you’re basically beating some of the material out of the foam.”

Flame retardants can end up in household dust, which researchers say is a major route of exposure. And some flame retardant chemicals bioaccumulate, meaning they gradually build up in the body.

Retardants are found on so many household products that they’re nearly unavoidable.

University of Toronto chemist Miriam Diamond has found traces of chemical retardants all over Toronto homes.

“We found them everywhere, everywhere from the kettle, to the computer, TV, couches, chairs, the backing on your carpet,” she says. “They’re in every room, in every location.”

A study released Wednesday also found that that chlorinated Tris, a retardant banned from baby pyjamas in 1977, was the most common retardant in couches tested in the U.S.

Some chemicals banned

Diamond was also surprised to find potentially toxic retardants in children's toys.

A recent U.S. study found that children with higher levels of an older class of flame retardant chemicals called PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, showed lower IQs, shorter attention spans and weaker motor skills than those with lower levels.

Studies have found young children tend to harbour the highest levels of such chemicals since they tend to play on carpets and furniture, increasing their exposure. Some classes of toxic flame retardants, like many other chemicals, are also transferable through breast milk.

PBDEs and similar retardants are also linked to altered thyroid functions in pregnant women, as well as increased difficulty in conception.

The Canadian government has already banned two classes of PBDEs, but critics say that more action is needed. Environment Canada has announced it plans to ban a third class of PBDE by 2012, but legislation hasn’t been introduced.

As older chemicals have been banned or phased out, a new generation of flame retardant chemicals has come into increasing use. Environmental and health researchers worry that new chemicals have not undergone enough toxicological scrutiny to properly assess their safety.

Watch Marketplace's episode, Burned, Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador) for more on the potential dangers of flame retardants.