Flame Retardants: The Asbestos of Our Time?

(Pictured on right: My grandfather, Diego Batista Martinez, on one of his beloved ships. He died of Mesothelioma in April 2005 after years of exposure to asbestos in the shipyards.)

Every time I travel out east to visit my parents and grandmother I always think of my grandfather. Growing up, he was a second father to me, always present and supportive in every way. I will never forget the way he delighted in playing with my son, his first great grandson.

He never got to meet my four-year-old daughter as he died six years ago of lung cancer.

When I tell people this, they immediately assume that he smoked. No he did not. This was a man who took care of himself. He made sure to clock in his eight hours of sleep a night, eat healthy, watch his weight and even subscribed to a health and fitness magazine. In his late 70s, he was active, his olive skin hardly had any wrinkles, and his black hair was peppered only at the temples.

But then he was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, lung cancer due to asbestos that he was exposed to in the shipyards and manufacturing plants where he worked.

I would not wish this disease on anyone. He died in hospice care at my parents’ home, choking on his own blood. He spent the last few months of his life on an oxygen tank, which he wheeled around, as his breathing became labored.  

Asbestos, by the way, is used to prevent fires. Many workplaces, including schools, have attempted to phase out asbestos due to the number of Mesothelioma cases in the 1970s and in recent years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban it in 1989, but was overruled in court. Today workplaces and consumer products can still legally contain trace amounts of asbestos.

For me, this is outrageous and concerning. But as I have learned in recent years there are a host of other carcinogenic, fire-fighting chemicals to worry about: toxic and untested flame retardants.


The Green Science Policy Institute, which is headed by Arlene Blum, the scientist whose work contributed to the phasing out of a cancer-causing flame retardant in children’s pajamas in the 1970s, just uncovered some disturbing research. Her organization helped collect samples of the foam from 100 baby products, including changing table pads, nursing pillows and car seats. Researchers, lead by Heather Stapleton of Duke University, found that 36% of them contained the same chlorinated tris removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s. A whopping 80% of the products contained toxic or untested flame retardants.

“I am always careful to protect my son,” Holly S. Lohuis, a marine biologist whose son had been biomonitored for toxic chemicals, said in a released statement. “I am heartbroken that at age four his levels of flame retardants are like those of an industrial worker.”

For Latino families, the results of this study are especially discouraging. Not only are our families exposed to toxic chemicals in the workplace, but according to this study, Mexican American schoolchildren in California have seven times the flame retardant level compared to children in Mexico. And just to show you how vulnerable their little bodies are, these same children had three times the level of flame retardants as their mothers.

This is disturbing as animal studies have linked flame retardants to cancer, neurological and reproductive disorders. The flame retardants easily leach onto dust, pet hair, and the crumbling foam of old products — surely, I am not the only one who used second-hand baby products! — making them easy to ingest by children.

What irks me most is these companies have managed to turn it around, claim their “fire safe” products are superior and even worth paying for. What they don’t display is the hidden cost for our children, our babies, in terms of their health.

Also, most fire victims — as many as 80% — die due to smoke inhalation rather than the actual flames. So why don’t we take a deep breath — a deep breath of fresh air that is — and take care of our lungs and that of our children. After witnessing our family’s exposure to the fire-fighting chemical, asbestos, I, for one, do not want to find out the longterm effect of toxic flame retardants in my children’s bodies.

Elisa Batista, who co-publishes the MotherTalkers blog, is also a proud contributor to the MomsRising and Moms Clean Air Force blogs. She dedicates this post to her late abuelo, Diego Batista Martinez.  

4 thoughts on “Flame Retardants: The Asbestos of Our Time?

  1. My high school

    I went to a very small school, and over half of the teachers & staff  I had 25 years ago are still there. At least eight staff members, have either died from cancer or contracted cancer in the last ten years or so, which is a pretty high percentage for such a small pool of people. I was talking to an old friend about it and mentioned that they took the asbestos out of the 60s-era building just before we got there. Her aunt was a janior there and told her that was true of the ceilings but it was left in the floor.

    Well, that doesn’t make me feel so great! And I’m not happy that flame retardants are still in places we don’t think of. Thanks for bringing this issue to light. I feel like there’s so much I can’t do, because it’s in the past, but I can only go forward with new & better information.

  2. How to avoid the danger of the chemicals.

    Just over a decade ago I worked on a documentary regarding the dangers to workers in the asbestos abatement industry. Basically large firms would get government contracts to rid government buildings of the stuff. However, the contractors would turn around and hire sub-contrators who hired the undocumented to do the dirty work. The results were poorly trained young men working without any protective gear. And this wasn’t happening only in California, but all over the country. The Clinton adminstration through then Attorney General Janet Reno tried to protect workers after it came out that companies in the D.C.were going to homeless shelters recruiting workers and they in turn were dumping the asbestos in plastic bags along the side of roads.

    I have a question though, how do we protect our kids from the exposure? Should parents be told not to buy clothing/items that says it has fire retardent.  How can parents know??  

    • I know all PJ’s have fire retardants

      it is safe to buy clothes that say “Not intended for sleepwear” which they must say to get around the laws in some states REQUIRING flame retardants.

  3. No one in our family had first-hand

    exposure to asbestos, but a girlfriend of mine’s grandfather was a worker in the shipyards in WWII. He died of mesothelioma back in the 80s — drowned in his own blood, very horrific. These workers were covered in asbestos and brought it home, spread it to the whole family via the washing machine.

    BTW, your grandfather cut a dashing figure in that uniform. I just love men in uniform. He must have been a magnet for the ladies back in the day!  

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