Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) are flame retardant chemicals added to products so they won't catch fire or burn so easily if they are exposed to flame or high heat. PBDEs have been used for over 30 years in products such as mattresses, upholstered furniture, foam carpet pads, draperies, television sets, computers, stereos and other electronics, cable insulation, adhesives, and textile coating.

PBDEs can migrate out of flame retardant products and accumulate in indoor air, house dust, and eventually the environment. PBDEs do not break down quickly in the environment and can accumulate in the food chain. They have been found in air, soils, sediments, fish, marine mammals, birds and other wildlife, beef, chicken, dairy products, and people's bodies. In people, some PBDEs can stay in the fat and other tissues of the body for long periods. Some of the highest levels of PBDEs have been found in the United States.

The concentrations of PBDEs in human blood, breast milk, and body fat indicate that most people are exposed to PBDEs. You may be exposed to PBDEs through household dust, consumer products, and from residues in food. People who work in enclosed spaces where PBDE-containing products are manufactured, repaired, or recycled may have a higher level of exposure.

Animal studies have shown that PBDE exposure during pregnancy and after birth caused problems with brain development in offspring. These studies observed problems with learning, memory, and behavior in mice and rats. Animal studies also found that PBDEs can alter thyroid and other hormone levels.

Studies conducted in New York and the Netherlands have measured PBDEs in the bodies of pregnant mothers or in the umbilical cord blood at birth and then followed the children as they matured. Higher PBDEs levels in mothers have been associated with lower measures of intelligence, attention, and fine motor skills in their children. Higher PBDEs in mothers were also associated with difficulty getting pregnant and lower thyroid hormones during pregnancy. Relatively recent reports have indicated that exposure to low concentrations of these chemicals may result in irreparable damage to the nervous and reproductive systems. Based on animal studies, the possible health effects of decaBDE in humans involve the liver, thyroid, reproductive/developmental effects, and neurological effects.

  • Cleaning - PBDEs in indoor dust is one of the primary sources of people's exposure. Reduce your exposure to indoor dust. Use a damp cloth to dust indoor living and working areas. Avoid stirring the dust into the air. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Open windows and doors while you clean. Wash hands after dusting and cleaning.
  • Foam products - New foam items that you purchase today are unlikely to contain PBDEs. However, mattresses, mattress pads, couches, easy chairs, foam pillows, carpet padding, and other foam products purchased before 2005 likely contain PBDEs. Replace older foam products that have ripped covers or foam that is misshapen or breaking down. If you can't replace the item, try to keep the covers intact. When removing old carpet foam, keep the work area sealed from other areas of the house, avoid breathing in the dust, and use a HEPA-filter vacuum for cleanup.
  • Electronics - Deca-BDE has been used in electronics for years but is now being replaced in most electronics. When purchasing electronics, request products that contain no Deca-BDE or other bromine-containing fire retardants.
  • Foods - PBDEs can concentrate in the fat of poultry, red meat, fish and other fatty meats. Always purchase the lean meats and cut off excess fat. People argue that it adds flavor, but is it worth eating the very item that clogs the arteries and supplies a toxic chemical? Be extra cautious when grilling. The fat that falls from the meats burns and makes flames and fumes that have extra lethal doses of PBDE.