Brominated flame retardants are compounds which are added to numerous consumer products to increase their fire resistance. While products treated with brominated flame retardants are not fire proof, they are much more resistant to fire, which can prevent the spread of a fire and give people time to escape a room or building when a fire breaks out. These additives are so ubiquitous that chances are high that you have some in your house right now, especially if you live in a nation with rigorous laws mandating fire resistance for products like upholstery and electronics.
This class of chemicals consists of a variety of products, all of which contain bromine. One of the most widely used types of brominated flame retardant contains polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). When substances are treated with these chemicals, they are slow to catch fire, and fire will have difficulty taking hold. The substance will eventually burn if a fire is hot and sustained, of course, but the slow burning can be a distinct advantage.
Classically, brominated flame retardants are added to plastics such as those used in electronics and appliances, and they are also used to treat textiles, upholstery, pillows and stuffing utilized in things like couches. Products designed for children in particular are often heavily treated for safety. The chemicals are added during the manufacturing process so that they totally impregnate the substance, ensuring the most possible protection.
Plastics and textiles happen to be a major area of concern for fire safety officials, because both can harbor embers which can be fanned up into a blaze, and both can contribute to the rapid spread of devastating fires. Fires cause huge amounts of damage around the world annually, and the use of brominated flame retardants appears to reduce financial damages caused by fires, along with lowering the rate of fatalities and injuries.
Although brominated flame retardants are clearly useful, some concerns have been raised about these chemicals. They appear to interfere with brain development, and they can act as hormone disruptors, causing damage to the endocrine systems. Studies have also shown that these chemicals bioaccumulate in fat, and they can be expressed in breast milk. Some environmental activists have pushed for a ban on brominated fire retardants, arguing that they cause damage to the natural environment and pose a health threat to humans. Environmental regulators agree, but they are reluctant to support a ban when effective alternatives do not exist. Some classes of brominated flame retardants have been banned in response to concerns, and chemical companies are working to develop safer alternatives.