Halogenated flame retardants: do the fire safety benefits justify the risks?

Rev Environ Health. 2010 Oct-Dec;25(4):261-305. doi: 10.1515/reveh.2010.25.4.261.


Since the 1970s, an increasing number of regulations have expanded the use of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants. Many of these chemicals are now recognized as global contaminants and are associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans, including endocrine and thyroid disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function. Some flame retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have been banned or voluntarily phased out by manufacturers because of their environmental persistence and toxicity, only to be replaced by other organohalogens of unknown toxicity. Despite restrictions on further production in some countries, consumer products previously treated with banned retardants are still in use and continue to release toxic chemicals into the environment, and the worldwide use of organohalogen retardants continues to increase. This paper examines major uses and known toxic effects of commonly-used organohalogen flame retardants, replacements for those that have been phased out, their combustion by-products, and their effectiveness at reducing fire hazard. Policy and other solutions to maintain fire safety while reducing toxicity are suggested. The major conclusions are: (1) Flammability regulations can cause greater adverse environmental and health impacts than fire safety benefits. (2) The current options for end-of-life disposal of products treated with organohalogens retardants are problematic. (3) Life-cycle analyses evaluating benefits and risks should consider the health and environmental effects of the chemicals, as well as their fire safety impacts. (4) Most fire deaths and most fire injuries result from inhaling carbon monoxide, irritant gases, and soot. The incorporation of organohalogens can increase the yield of these toxic by-products during combustion. (5) Fire-safe cigarettes, fire-safe candles, child-resistant lighters, sprinklers, and smoke detectors can prevent fires without the potential adverse effects of flame retardant chemicals. (6) Alternatives to organohalogen flame retardant chemicals include using less flammable materials, design changes, and safer chemicals. To date, before evaluating their health and environmental impacts, many flame retardant chemicals have been produced and used, resulting in high levels of human exposure. As a growing literature continues to find adverse impacts from such chemicals, a more systematic approach to their regulation is needed. Before implementing new flammability standards, decision-makers should evaluate the potential fire safety benefit versus the health and environmental impacts of the chemicals, materials, or technologies likely to be used to meet the standard. Reducing the use of toxic or untested flame retardant chemicals in consumer products can protect human and animal health and the global environment without compromising fire safety.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Environmental Pollution / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Pollution / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Fires / prevention & control*
  • Flame Retardants / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocarbons, Halogenated / toxicity*
  • Policy
  • Refuse Disposal


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Flame Retardants
  • Hydrocarbons, Halogenated