Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or "PBDEs," are flame retardants commonly used in furniture, mattresses and electronics. Used for decades and found in thousands of consumer products, PBDEs (sometimes called “halogenated" or "brominated flame retardants”) permeate our homes, schools and work environments. Because PBDEs are not chemically bound to the plastics, foam, fabrics and other products in which they are used, they leach out of these items, accumulating in the environment, in our food supplies, and in our bodies.

Through inhalation and ingestion, PBDEs accumulate in human blood, breast milk and umbilical cord fluid. Studies show that they can disrupt the endocrine system and possibly cause adverse neuro-developmental effects in young children. For example, a recent study demonstrated that children with higher concentrations of PBDEs in their umbilical cord fluid at birth under-performed on tests of mental and physical development from the ages of one to six years old.

Not only are PBDE exposures risky during pregnancy, but studies also show that women with high levels of PBDEs in their bodies may have difficulty conceiving.

The main source of exposure to PBDE seems to be from foam cushions in furniture and bedding that has been impregnated with flame-retardant chemicals. Over time, as furniture is used and the foam begins to break down, PBDE is released into the air where it accumulates on surfaces and in house dust. Children who play on floors have increased exposure.

The regulation of PBDE has largely been left with individual states, and the results have been a patchwork of conflicting regulations. The state of California actually mandates that furniture sold in the state must contain PBDE, while states like Washington, Maine and Vermont have banned all forms of PBDE. This wide discrepancy in government oversight leads to extremely disparate levels of exposure among people around the United States.

It’s very difficult to purchase PBDE-free furniture and electronics for two reasons. First, manufacturers are not required to disclose the presence of PBDEs in their products, and second, California’s PBDE mandate and its large consumer market mean that most products are manufactured to that standard. While you can avoid any product that claims to meet California standards for fire safety standards, this is no guarantee that the product does not contain PBDE.

Older furniture that may contain PBDEs should be discarded when foam begins to break down or leak from tears and split seams. It is best to cover foam portions with barriers to contain dust and particles. Frequent dusting and cleaning can keep PBDEs from accumulating on surfaces around your home or workplace.