Body of Evidence

New Science in the Debate Over Toxic Flame Retardants and Our Health

Manufacturers of common household products add Deca to plastics or fabrics to make them resist the spread of fire. A growing body of evidence shows that exposure to Deca may cause adverse health effects, including damage to the nervous system and impaired motor skills.



PIRGIM Education Fund

New evidence indicates that the chemical flame retardant decabromodiphenyl ether (Deca) may threaten the health of Americans.

Manufacturers of common household products add Deca to plastics or fabrics to make them resist the spread of fire. A growing body of evidence shows that exposure to Deca may cause adverse health effects, including damage to the nervous system and impaired motor skills. New research also indicates Deca can break down into the types of flame retardants recently banned in the European Union and California because of their bioaccumulative and toxic properties.

Unfortunately, the story of Deca is not unique. Deca is one of many potentially hazardous chemicals that are in widespread use, due to a failed national policy that presumes chemicals are safe until proven beyond a doubt to cause harm.

Toxic flame retardants are commonly added to household products. Deca is the most heavily used member of a class of flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. There are three main types of commercially used PBDEs: Penta, Octa, and Deca. Deca is added to products used in the home, in travel, and in the workplace, including televisions, stereos, computers, hair dryers, toasters, draperies, and upholstery fabrics. These materials contain as much as 5-30 percent Deca by weight. In 2001 alone, North American industry used 49 million pounds of Deca, accounting for almost half the world market.

The European Union and California banned Penta and Octa flame retardants because they pose a threat to human health. The European Union has developed a policy banning the use of all PBDEs (Penta, Octa, and Deca) in consumer electronics beginning in mid-2006 and banning the marketing and use of the Penta and Octa products in all sectors beginning in mid-2004. In 2003, the state of California followed suit, banning use and distribution of Penta and Octa. A few months later, the largest U.S. manufacturer of these two chemicals announced a national phase-out of their production.

Numerous laboratory studies point to potential health effects from exposure to Penta and Octa flame retardants:

Infant mice exposed to these toxic flame retardants suffer disrupted brain development, permanently impairing learning and movement.

Components of Penta and Octa are rapidly building up inside people. American women’s breast milk and breast tissue contain some of the highest levels of PBDEs found in any population in the world.

Human contamination levels leave little margin of safety. PBDEs found in some mothers and fetuses are rapidly approaching the levels shown to impair learning and behavior in lab testing.

Contrary to industry claims, Deca also poses a threat to human health. Deca escapes into the environment because it is not chemically bound to products to which it is added. Within the home, Deca has been found in household dust and as a film coating the surfaces of windows. It also escapes from products in landfills to spread through air and water.

Deca decomposes into forms that are more toxic and more easily absorbed by the body. Although Deca itself is less easily absorbed by the body than other PBDEs, lab experiments have demonstrated that Deca can break down and convert to more dangerous forms, including the Penta and Octa scientists have found rapidly accumulating in our bodies. New evidence indicates that Deca decomposes in sunlight and ultraviolet light and within the bodies of animals.

Deca itself has been found in animals and humans. The chemical industry has asserted that the Deca molecule is too large to be efficiently taken up by organisms. However, Deca has been found in peregrine falcons, in workers at electronics recycling plants, in regular citizens in the U.K., and in the breast milk of mothers in the United States. One recent study of American women’s breast milk found levels of Deca in 16 of 20 women tested. A study from the University of Texas found a maximum level of Deca 40 times higher than industry’s estimated maximum body burden for women who disassemble Deca-containing computers for a living.

Deca itself may be neurotoxic. Recent research also has revealed that Deca exhibits some of the same toxic properties as Penta and Octa. When infant lab animals are exposed to Deca during a key period of development, they develop permanent damage to their nervous systems, resulting in impaired motor skills. This damage worsens with age.

Safer means of fireproofing products are widely available. Leaders in the furniture, plastic, and electronics industries already have manufactured products that meet fire-safety standards without the use of Deca. Strategies for flame-resistance include using better product design, inherently nonflammable materials, or alternative flame-retardant chemicals. For example, Ericsson, which manufactures cell phones and other electronics, has banned Deca and other PBDEs from its products and applications and found replacements at comparable cost.

U.S. chemicals policy compromises public health. In the U.S. alone, tens of thousands of industrial chemicals are on the market with little or no information about potential health impacts. Where significant evidence of harm to public health exists, inadequate resources and legal authority prevent regulatory agencies from taking protective action.


Phase Out Toxic Flame Retardants

Despite remaining data gaps about the hazards of Deca, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should take action based on current evidence. Given the scientific studies showing that Deca accumulates in humans, breaks down into more hazardous chemicals, and potentially harms brain development, the United States should phase out the use of Deca and other brominated flame retardants—especially given the availability of viable alternatives. 

Reform U.S. Chemicals Policy

U.S. Chemicals policy should ensure that manufacturers and industrial users provide regulatory agencies and the public with adequate information about their products, so that agencies can act to protect public health from potentially dangerous substances before damage is done. Chemicals that are untested or known to be hazardous should not be on the market or in widespread use and distribution. In addition, the costs of developing analytical methods and testing for chemicals’ safety should fall to the manufacturers who stand to profit from the product. In the absence of adequate data, the U.S. must take measures to prevent exposure to chemicals when there is evidence of potential harm.