Commonly used in mattresses, upholstery, television and computer casings and circuit boards, flame retardants have likely saved many lives by preventing unexpected fires in homes across the world. However, science has revealed a darker side to these chemical superheroes, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs for short, found in a variety of consumer plastics. Two forms of PBDEs were phased out of use in manufacturing in the United States in 2004 because of related health threats [source: CDC]. However, the products containing them and their cousin deca-PBDE linger on.
Studies have linked PBDEs to learning and memory problems, lowered sperm counts and poor thyroid functioning in rats and mice [source: Underwood]. Other animal studies have indicated that PBDEs could be carcinogenic in humans, but that has not been confirmed [source: CDC].
People can inhale them through air and dust or ingest it by eating animal products that contain it [source: Duncan]. And once these get into our bodies, they set up camp. These chemicals have spread so extensively that traces of them have also shown up in waterways.
In humans, PBDEs accumulate in females' wombs and breast milk, passing the chemicals along to infants [source: Cone]. Likewise, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has discovered levels of PBDEs in almost all people tested for it [source: CDC]. Future CDC studies will focus on the safety of deca-PBDE, which could lead to a complete phase out of these flame retardants.