Summarizing the Latest Research
Flame retardants are added to many products including those containing polyurethane foam, such as pit cubes, landing mats, upholstered furniture and foam mattress pads (check tags for listing of ‘polyurethane foam’. Note that most standard mattresses use barrier materials to meet flammability standards and do not contain flame retardants. Use in memory foam is variable, check with your retailer.). They escape these products by evaporating into the air (volatilization) and degrading into dust. Flame retardants enter our bodies through accidental ingestion, inhalation and absorption through the skin. Once in our bodies they can remain there for a long time. For example, components of the PentaBDE mixture can take up to 6 years for half the amount in our bodies to be excreted. Even flame retardants that are eliminated more quickly (TPHP and TDCIPP) are of concern when we are continuously exposed.
There is evidence that flame retardants are not good for our health. Some types of brominated and organophosphate flame retardants such as PentaBDE, TDCIPP and TPHP can disrupt levels of thyroid hormone in the body [1-6]. Thyroid hormone is important for development and metabolism, so its disruption can contribute to a range of health problems. The types of potential health effects is a topic of ongoing research. Some research has found population-wide decreases in fertility (e.g., taking longer to get pregnant) [7,8] as well as sperm motility . Others have found increases in developmental behavioral disorders such as ADHD in children whose mother’s had higher levels of PentaBDE in their blood during pregnancy [10-12]. TDCIPP is considered a carcinogen under Proposition 65 regulated by the State of California  and is also potential developmental neurotoxicant . TPHP is a suspected obesogen that can stimulate development of fat cells and interfere with bone cell development [15, 16]. Finally, there is concern that exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals may contribute to development of hormonally sensitive cancers (thyroid, breast, prostate, ovarian, testicular). Therefore, it is precautious to limit exposure to such chemicals and to closely scrutinize use of other types of flame retardants.
Concerns among public health professionals have caused PentaBDE flame retardants to be phased out of use in newly manufactured products, however products containing these flame retardants are still in use, newer products may contain potentially harmful alternatives (TDCIPP, TPHP, TBB, TBPH), and safe disposal practices are needed to prevent additional legacy contamination of water supplies.
TDCIPP: tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate or ‘chlorinated tris’
TPHP: triphenyl phosphate