Summary: A class of brominated flame retardants known as polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) are under assault from environmental activists and regulators both in the United States and overseas. Flame retardants give people more time to escape a fire by delaying flashover, the explosive-like eruption of flames responsible for most of the fatalities and property damage in residential fires. PBDEs are particularly effective flame retardants and have long been widely used in the manufacture of televisions and other electrical equipment, furniture, and mattresses.
Fire retardants truly save lives. Their use in television cabinets alone is estimated to save 190 lives a year in the U.S. In the United Kingdom, where materials used in many home furnishings must be fire-resistant, researchers reckon the regulations have spared about 1,150 lives and prevented almost 13,500 injuries over the course of a decade.
Nevertheless, U.S. and European regulators have effectively banned two of the three most prominent PBDE flame retardants. An assortment of states, environmental groups, and foreign governments, moreover, is seeking to ban the third one (i.e., decaBDE) as well, even though there is no credible evidence that the chemical represents a danger to humans or the environment. Numerous studies, in fact, have concluded that our exposure to the compound is minimal and does not pose an adverse health risk for people at expected exposures.
Current evidence shows that the benefits of PBDE flame retardants, in terms of lives saved and injuries prevented, far outweigh any demonstrated or likely negative health effects from their use.