In a move hailed by consumer advocates, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued an emphatic new warning: Consumers, especially pregnant women and young children, should avoid products containing organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs), a class of chemicals found in children’s toys, mattresses, furniture, and the plastic casings of electronic devices.

Compounds in this chemical group have been linked to a list of serious health issues, including decreased IQ, learning deficits and hyperactivity in children, impaired memory function, cancer, reproductive problems, and hormone and immune disorders.

The CPSC warning comes just one week after the agency voted to take steps toward banning OFRs altogether in certain products. That process is likely to take years. In the meantime, the CPSC is calling on manufacturers to voluntarily eliminate these compounds from consumer products and urging both retailers and consumers to “obtain assurances” from companies that their wares are OFR-free.

More on Chemicals and Product Safety

The new measures resulted from a petition filed in 2015 by 10 environmental and consumer advocacy groups, including Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports. Proponents say that they represent a significant win for consumers, especially in a marketplace flooded with untested chemicals during a time marked more by deregulation than consumer protection.

“This is the country’s preeminent safety regulator stepping up and saying it’s concerned about the risks posed by an entire class of flame-retardant chemicals,” says William Wallace, a Consumers Union policy analyst. “It’s a strong signal to manufacturers to get moving on phasing these substances out.”

It’s also a clarion call to consumers: By demanding OFR-free products, they can drive meaningful improvements in marketplace safety.

Risks Outweigh Benefits

Organohalogens have been used for decades in a wide range of consumer products to stop or slow the spread of fire. But a growing body of research indicates that the health risks posed by these chemicals outweigh any fire-repelling benefit. Some studies suggest that not all the products that contain flame retardants necessarily need to. What’s more, scientists and advocates say that, in furniture especially, the chemicals don’t do much to reduce fires anyway because the small amounts used in any individual product are generally not enough to quell large or spreading flames.

OFRs can leach out of consumer products, accumulate in household dust, and be absorbed, ingested, or inhaled by humans. “We know that all chemicals in this class will escape into the environment and into people,” Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, told regulators at a public hearing. “We know that they migrate continuously from everyday household products into the air around us.”

Studies suggest that more than 97 percent of U.S. residents have measurable quantities of OFRs in their blood. Children, who tend to come into more contact with household dust, have been found to have three to five times as much of the compounds in their system as adults living in the same households. Children are also more vulnerable to the health risks associated with these chemicals because their organs are still developing. Several OFRs have already been forced off the market after they were found to have accumulated in people at dangerous levels.

A Battle Brewing

The six-member CPSC was split over the new guidelines. Two members opposed, among other things, the decision to group all OFRs together. There are more than 200 such chemicals, and only a handful of them have ever been studied. But several scientists argued, and those who carried the measure agreed, that it would be impossible to test every suspect compound individually. “Unfortunately, scientific research can not keep pace with the flood of new chemicals in commerce,” Birnbaum says. If the entire class isn't included, one outlawed OFR could just be replaced by another, equally dangerous one. (This practice is so common that there’s a term for it: regrettable replacements.)

For its part, the American Chemistry Council disputed the assertion that OFRs are more dangerous than helpful. “Today’s actions are misguided and could jeopardize the safety of products in the future,” the trade group said in a prepared statement. They also noted that the new guidance is nonbinding and vowed to “actively communicate” with the manufacturing sector to promote continued use of OFRs while regulatory agencies consider an outright ban.

Eva Gartner, an attorney with the environmental group Earth Justice (which also signed the petition that pushed for the new guidelines), says that industry’s stance makes consumer voices even more urgent. “Policymakers and manufacturers will hear from industry that these chemicals are fine to keep using,” she says. “It’s important that they hear from retailers and consumers as well, that OFRs are no longer acceptable in these products.”

How to Protect Yourself

Without new labeling laws or a complete ban on OFRs, it’s still very difficult for consumers to find out which products contain these chemicals and which don’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t protect yourself. Consumer advocacy and environmental groups recommend the following steps to keep your family as safe as possible:

Check children’s product labels. Choose products whose labels read “contains no added flame retardants.” And avoid products made with polyurethane foam, which tends to contain high concentrations of OFRs. (Children’s products labeled as meeting the California flammability standard are also likely to contain OFRs.)

Check furniture labels. A California law requires all new upholstered furniture sold in the state to include a visible label that makes clear whether flame retardant chemicals were added. Consumers outside the state should also look for this label. If you can’t find it, ask a salesperson or contact the manufacturer directly for more information.  

Keep it clean. Wash your hands to keep dust particles from latching on and then being consumed in food. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. And wet-dust and wet-mop on a regular basis. A 2016 study done by researchers at George Washington University found 45 potentially harmful chemicals, including flame retardants, in household dust.  

Get tested. If you want to know what’s in a product you already own, you can send a sample of it to Duke University, where researchers will analyze it free.