The Questionable Safety of Replacement Fire Retardants

Young girl sits on a sofa in a furniture store.

Photo by Kevin Utting.


Several years ago, a class of fire retardant chemicals known as PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, were phased out of consumer products because of toxicity concerns. Scientific tests showed that these chemicals were persistent in the environment, accumulated in peoples’ bodies and could disturb endocrine signaling pathways critical for normal development. Research also indicated that children were more highly exposed to these compounds than adults.

Some manufacturers replaced PBDEs with different chemicals, including “chlorinated tris” – another name for TDCIPP – and a variety of organophosphorous compounds. One widely used formulation is marketed as Firemaster® 550.

Scientists at the Environmental Working Group and Duke University recently released an analysis of children’s exposures to these replacement chemicals and found a biomarker of TDCIPP, a recognized carcinogen, in the bodies of every mother and child tested. Even more troubling was the finding that on average, the levels in children were nearly five times higher than their mothers’.

There are big questions about the safety of TDCIPP. It is listed on California’s Proposition 65 roster as a known carcinogen, and the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission describes it as a probable human carcinogen. It has been linked to hormonal changes in men and developmental effects in animals.

Two components of Firemaster® 550 –  triphenyl phosphate and isopropyl triphenyl phosphates (TPhP and ip-TPhPs, respectively) – increase the activity of a protein called PPARγ. PPARγ plays an important role in metabolic processes involved in diabetes and obesity. TPhP is also used to make plastic and is found in a variety of household goods.

The unhealthy effects associated with these replacement chemicals raise an important question: Why were they used as PBDE replacements in the first place?

A serious flaw in U.S. chemical regulation is that toxicity testing is not required before chemicals are sold and incorporated in consumer items. Chemical manufacturers do not have to prove that their products are safe. In fact, much of the toxicological data for TDCIPP and Firemaster® 550 was published by independent academic researchers after these compounds appeared on the market.

In some cases, scientists don’t even know the chemical identity of fire retardant mixtures because the manufacturers claim that the information is a trade secret. When Firemaster® 550 went into commerce, its maker designated composition of the mixture as proprietary.

So how do people avoid exposure to these compounds? It’s almost impossible. EWG has some suggestions on limiting exposure, but it’s not easy for parents to shop their way out of the problem because there are no labeling requirements for products that contain fire retardants. If you’re in the market for new furniture or baby products, you may need to do some homework to identify items that are free of these chemicals. In the meantime, EWG is supporting efforts to require clear labeling of products that contain fire retardants.

Photo credit: Kevin Utting

Johanna Congleton PhD

Johanna Congleton is a Senior Scientist at the Environmental Working Group. She holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology and an MSPH in Environmental Science. A previous version of this blog appeared on the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families website.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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