Protect the air your family breathes

The insider information on how to improve your indoor air quality

By Allan Britnell

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Fire retardants

It’s sadly ironic when products designed to help us actually end up hurting us, which seems to be the case with a class of fire-retardant chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs.

For decades PBDEs have been added to myriad products–from the wiring in TVs and stereos to the foam in carpet underpad, couches and mattresses–for their ability to slow the spread of flames. Unfortunately, the chemicals have slowly been spreading throughout the environment, showing up in unwanted (and frightening) places like the human bloodstream and breast milk.

In lab testing, mice exposed to PBDEs (albeit in doses far higher than you’d be exposed to at home) had delayed behavioural and nervous-system development, and inhibited liver and thyroid functioning. PBDEs are also a possible carcinogen.

While Health Canada says “there is no clear evidence of any adverse effects” to humans from exposure, it does offer tips for minimizing your contact with these chemicals, including frequent vacuuming and cleaning to remove potentially contaminated dust, and reducing consumption of fatty foods (the chemicals build up in the fatty tissues of animals, including humans).

Although the European Union has led worldwide efforts to ban the production and use of most PDBE formulations, DecaBDE is still used in Canada. This is despite objections of groups such as the David Suzuki Foundation and the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

If you are concerned, buy PBDE-free products that use naturally fire-resistant materials in lieu of chemical treatment. Swedish-based retailer Ikea, for one, uses cotton or wool filler in its mattresses to comply with fire regulations.

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