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Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a type of flame retardant. Flame retardants are chemicals that slow the spread of fire, reduce costly damage caused by fire and save lives. 

There are 3 main types of PBDEs: PentaBDE, OctaBDE and DecaBDE.

  • How you’re exposed to PBDEs

    PBDEs are found in many everyday items such as:

    • materials used in buildings and cars
    • carpet underlay
    • furniture foam
    • electronic equipment

    PBDEs may be part of the product itself (for example, the foam used in furniture) or sprayed on the finished product (for example, on upholstery fabric). They are also released during the manufacturing process.

    Research suggests that the most common source of exposure is from household dust, mostly from PBDEs being released from furniture and appliances that contain the chemicals. They have also been found in water, soil, lake sediment and sewage sludge and at low levels in food.

  • PBDEs and cancer

    The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has reviewed the evidence for deca-BDE and wasn’t able to determine whether exposure to this specific PBDE causes cancer in humans. Based on studies done in rats and mice, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified deca-BDE as 'suggestive of carcinogenic potential'. Learn more about how cancer-causing substances are classified. 

    PBDEs also have endocrine-disrupting properties. This means they may mimic or behave like hormones and can interfere with the normal hormonal activity in our bodies. Endocrine disruptions can lead to certain types of cancer. In lab animals (rats and mice), certain PBDEs have affected the:

    • production of the thyroid hormone
    • development of the reproductive system
    • behaviour of adult animals exposed to PBDEs at a young age

    PBDEs have also been found in fish and marine animals, and in human blood, fatty tissues and breast milk. However, the levels of PBDEs in people are much lower than the levels that produced these effects in rats and mice.

    PBDE levels seem to have been building up in both people and animals over the last 20 years. We do not know what this means for people’s health.

    Currently there is not enough scientific evidence to confirm whether or not PBDEs increase the risk of cancer in people.

  • Tips to reduce your exposure

    There is not enough scientific evidence to either confirm or rule out that PBDEs can increase your risk of cancer. PBDEs have been identified as toxic and are on the Canadian Environment Protection Act’s list of toxic substances. As a result, Environment Canada and Health Canada have put regulations in place to manage or ban PDBEs in Canada. These regulations prevent PBDEs from being manufactured in Canada and regulate the sale and use of specific PBDEs.

    While we learn more, you can:

    • Research a company’s policies before you purchase products from them. For example, many furniture, computer and electronics manufacturers are using flame retardants that don’t contain PBDEs. You can encourage companies to continue to look for safer alternatives.
    • Purchase naturally flame-retardant materials, such as wool. You should check whether the material has been treated with additional fire retardants or other chemicals. You may have to contact the manufacturer directly to do this.
    • Clean your house often, especially if you have young children, to reduce exposure to dust containing PBDEs.
    • Cover any exposed carpet pads or upholstery foam pads to reduce the amount of PBDEs released into your home or car.
  • Suggested links for more information
    General information about PBDEs

    Learn more about sources of PBDE exposure, potential health risks associated with exposure, how you can minimize your risk and what the Canadian government is doing to assess the dangers of PBDEs and protect Canadians from them.

    Government of Canada: Chemical Substances – Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)

    Environmental Canada – Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)

    Environment Canada – Ecological screening assessment report on PBDEs

    Environmental Protection Agency -  Polybrominated diphenyl ethers Action Plan Summary



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