Built-In Exposures

Built in Exposures

Some toxic synthetic chemicals are purposefully built into the common products and materials of everyday life, thereby exposing people to potential health harms on a regular basis. Such exposures are difficult to avoid, and almost impossible to remove once they are in our environments. We call these Built-In Exposures.

Flame retardant chemicals are a kind of Built-In Exposure. They are found in a wide range of ubiquitous consumer products, including furniture, clothing, carpets, vehicles and electronics and are now commonly present in house dust. Toxic flame retardant chemicals are found in the blood of nearly all Canadians. Flame retardant chemicals are an unusual instance of a Built-in Exposure because their use has been justified in the name of public health. Their use in furniture, clothing, electronics, camping gear, vehicles, and construction materials is tied to the aim of preventing death and injury from fires, though there is much research that questions their efficacy and other non-chemical methods of preventing fires are available.

When chemicals that are slow to break down, like the toxic flame retardant PBDE, and are built into our fr-infrastructure-exposureseveryday world, they continue to be sources of exposure for generations. For example, though harmful Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were banned in the late 1970s, they remain an ongoing source of exposure because they were built into our electricity infrastructure and today are found universally in the blood and urine of Canadians. Other chemicals are less persistent, such as bisphenol A (BPA), a toxic chemical added to polycarbonate plastics and to the thermal paper used in cash register receipts. Even though these chemicals break down relatively quickly, their ubiquity in consumer products and industrial waste make our exposures to this chemical chronic and unavoidable.

The ubiquity of Built-In Exposures makes them extremely difficult to avoid or eliminate altogether. If we were to look at one chemical or consumer object at a time, our exposure to toxic chemicals might seem insignificant. It is critical, however, to account for the cumulative effects of all the sources of exposure in our lived environments, including in our homes, workplaces, public spaces, and in wider ecosystems. These exposures add up. For example, in the most recent national biomonitoring studies on flame retardants in Canada, PBDEs were found in 75% of tested Canadians, aged 20-79. In a 2012 Canadian study, PBDEs were found in 92% of breast milk.

As flame retardant chemicals move out of manufactured goods and into our wider environments, individual consumer choice can do little to circumvent exposures. If the current regulatory approach to flame retardants continues, in which a chemical can be identified as toxic and yet remain in consumer products, we are guaranteed a future in which ubiquitous Built-In exposures to toxic chemicals will persist for generations.

To learn more, read our report Toxic by Design.