Fire Retardants Wash Out In Laundry | Chemical & Engineering News
Latest News
Web Date: October 1, 2014

Fire Retardants Wash Out In Laundry

Water Pollution: The chemicals used in furniture and electronics may end up on clothing, wash off in laundry, and make their way to rivers and lakes
Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: flame retardants, wastewater treatment, laundry, water pollution
Flame retardants slough off of clothing in the wash, pass through sewage treatment plants to rivers, and work their way into food chains.
Credit: Shutterstock
Photograph of a washing machine.
Flame retardants slough off of clothing in the wash, pass through sewage treatment plants to rivers, and work their way into food chains.
Credit: Shutterstock

Flame retardants used in furniture and electronics work their way into aquatic food chains, accumulating in organisms from mussels to fish to seals. Scientists know that rivers and lakes receive significant amounts of fire suppressants from treated wastewater, but how the compounds get into sewage plants has remained a mystery. For the first time, a new study suggests that the biggest contributors are our washing machines. Flame retardants hitch a ride on our clothing and then come out in the wash, the researchers say (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2014, DOI: 10.1021/es502227h).

Scientists worry about the fate of flame retardants because studies have linked the chemicals to cancer, neurotoxicity, and hormone disruption. Researchers have tried to chase the compounds as they go from consumer goods such as couch cushions and TV casings to accumulate in air, water, human breast milk, and aquatic food chains. “We know that flame retardants escape to house dust and that clothing gets dirty and accumulates dust,” says Erika D. Schreder, science director at the Washington Toxics Coalition, an environmental research and advocacy group in Seattle. Studies have also shown that sewage effluent is one of the largest sources of flame retardants to rivers and lakes, so “we thought that laundry water might be an important source of flame retardants,” Schreder says.

To test the hypothesis, Schreder and her colleague Mark J. La Guardia of the College of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science did some housework. They went to 20 households in Longview and Vancouver, Wash., near the mouth of the Columbia River, and convinced the residents to allow the scientists to vacuum and do laundry in their homes. The duo fit a conventional vacuum cleaner with a cellulose filter and sucked up dust from floors and carpets. The scientists washed a full load of laundry prepared by the residents and took a sample of the wastewater at the end of the agitation cycle. Schreder and La Guardia also visited the two sewage plants serving the households and grabbed samples of water entering and exiting the plant.

The scientists analyzed the dust and laundry wastewater samples with liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry and uncovered 21 flame retardants in the household dust, 18 of which also were in the laundry wastewater. The highest concentrations they measured came from chlorinated organophosphates, also known as Tris. These flame retardants, which have replaced banned or phased-out polybrominated diphenyl ethers, accounted for 72% of the retardants in the dust and 92% in the laundry wastewater.

Schreder and La Guardia then used the median concentration of each flame retardant in the washing machine water to estimate the expected level of flame retardants in water entering sewage plants if laundry wastewater were the sole source of the chemicals. “The estimates were very similar to what we measured coming into the treatment plants,” suggesting washing machines may be the dominant source of flame retardants for those plants, Schreder says.

Finally, the scientists estimated that every year the two treatment plants deliver 210 kg of Tris flame retardants to the Columbia River. If these discharges are typical of plants nationwide, that would mean that between 2 and 4% of the annual production of some Tris compounds gets washed down the drain via our laundry.

The researchers have filled an important knowledge gap on how flame retardants might move in the environment, says Amina Salamova, an environmental chemist at Indiana University, Bloomington. The data also hint that people may be exposed directly to flame retardants by the compounds riding on their clothing, she says.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
michelle randall (Wed Dec 10 07:23:55 EST 2014)
I am like a canary in the mine, my sensitivity to chemicals causes blisters and rashes when i come in contact with "antimicrobial" MICROBAN, which seems to be the new treatment for so many things. Thank you for bringing awareness to the unnecessary use of fire retardants, maybe your could make Microban and Biofresh your new target.
Roger (Mon Dec 29 12:48:28 EST 2014)
i Want to wash the flame retardants out of materials. I have a septic system; no connection to a city sewage system. a) is this a seriuos problem for the environment and b) what is the best way to wash it out?
I read online that soap and mild acids will take it out. True?
Thanks for your efforts
Lydia Bungalow (Thu Mar 26 19:39:18 EDT 2015)
Roger, I have been concerned about flame retardants since I read a great article and series in the Chicago tribune called playing with fire. After doing some searching online I found an article published by Dow chemicals which was touting the flame retardant ability of Kevlar material over fabric treated with FR chemicals. The conclusion was that washing FR treated clothing with detergent plus oxyclean eliminated the FR after 10 washings. So that's what I've been doing to remove it from all the back y gear I've got that's been treated.
Bob (Sun Jun 14 08:39:45 EDT 2015)
If you want to get flame retardant chemicals out of any clothing or bedding quicker, double your dose of fabric softener in the wash. It is very plainly warned on the back of every bottle of liquid softener that use of the product will remove the flame retardant properties of children's pajamas.

How many washes it will take to remove all traces is anyone's guess. Bud it makes me wonder if Dow used softener in their tests mentioned above by Lydia; and was it really the softener that did it rather than the detergent or oxyclean? Their containers have no such warning on them.
Brian (Mon Aug 03 14:47:44 EDT 2015)
BOB you're a genius!
Ann (Sun Nov 29 13:42:58 EST 2015)
The softener only covers the flame retardant properties it does not remove the chemicals that are bonded to the clothes.
Betty (Fri Jan 08 13:52:59 EST 2016)
We don't use fabric softeners, but, I read that it coats fabric. It also coats your dryer vent potentially enabling a fire hazard there, necessitating the need to wash your dryer vent now and then. So coating an already Flame Retardant material with more chemicals doesn't feel like the answer to me. The only answer is to demand the removal
of these toxic chemicals all together. Children's Autism is at a crisis level today and those investigating are very concerned about toxic chemicals in our environment. We must demand the removal of toxic chemicals in the US.

That said, another site said to soak in a 50/50 solution of water and white vinegar for 1 to 2 days and then wash the material with SOAP, not detergent. Would that even work?
Melanie (Sun Dec 18 12:49:41 EST 2016)
You may want to research using fabric softener at all. It coats everything and uses as many if not more toxic chemicals than flame retardants. It's then absorbed through your skin and inhaled into your lungs.
Marie Shepard (Sat Feb 11 15:12:46 EST 2017)
I have purchased a high quality quilt of Egyptian cotton & goose down, but noticed a chemical scent while unpacking - and still after a few nights use have a slight headache & drowsiness when waking. Unlikely that I am sensitive to the quilt material; I grew up with "feather beds". What "mix could I use to wash my new quilt at the laundromat? - since I believe the wash requires a volumoeus drum.

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment