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For decades, chemical flame retardants — generally made of noxious chemicals — have been added to everything from PVC pipes to couch cushions, all in the name of fire safety. The health dangers associated with these chemicals include reduced fertility and thyroid dysfunction in adults, hyperactivity and early onset puberty in children, and an increased cancer risk for all ages.

Since the 1970s, bans have kept many of these chemicals out of consumer products, though the industry has been quick to find equally suspect replacements. A recent report from the Environmental Working Group highlights how certain chemical flame retardants, like HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) and PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), still permeate our environment. HBCDs and PBDEs continue to be added to household appliances, television sets and portable electronic devices like cell phones, laptops and tablets. The chemicals also crop up in certain items of clothing, including pajamas, and many mattresses and pillows. When household plastics and textiles disintegrate over time, the toxins turn to dust particles and contaminate breathable air.

In addition, the chemicals have been found in animal-based fatty foods like meat, butter and cheese. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives (September 2012) and led by Arnold Schecter, MD, of the University of Texas School of Public Health, found that the chemicals have also made their way into jars of peanut butter. HBCDs and PBDEs have been detected in people all over the world and, disturbingly, are found in the breast milk of most nursing mothers.

Flame retardants will remain pervasive in many products, and in our environment, but there are ways to limit your exposure, says the Environmental Working Group: Steer clear of furniture produced before 2005, when stronger controls were introduced; repair or replace well-worn cushions that have exposed foam; use air cleaners and vacuums with HEPA filters to block contaminates; use a damp cloth when dusting to keep particles out of the air; and don’t let children play with (or chew on) electronics like cell phones and remotes.

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