Flame retardants in furniture more common than expected

December 12, 2012

By Mary Flynn
California Health Report

Flame retardants in furniture once seemed like a good way to prevent fire accidents in our homes. But multiple animal and human studies suggest that many flame retardant chemicals used to treat furniture are either toxic or have not yet been proven safe for long-term use. Now, new research suggests that these chemicals are more even more widespread than experts originally thought. A new study has found that 85 percent of couches purchased in the last seven years are treated with some kind of flame retardant chemicals.

The study, led by Duke University in collaboration with UC Berkeley, tested 102 couches. Of those, 41 percent contained chlorinated Tris, a cancer-causing chemical that was banned from children’s pajamas in the 1970s. Another 17 percent of couches contained PentaBDE, a globally banned chemical that was discontinued in U.S. products in 2005.

“We discovered there were a lot more couches with flame retardants than we had expected,” said Arlene Blum, a co-author of the study and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, a research organization that provides scientific data about chemicals in consumer products. The study indicated they found levels of flame retardant at up to 11 percent of the weight of the foam.

More manufacturers began using flame retardant chemicals in their products to comply with a California flammability standard, known as TB 117. This standard called for foam within furniture to withstand a small open flame for 12 seconds. While TB 117 was only a California standard, the study determined that 94 percent of couches purchased outside of California since 2005 also contained flame retardants. Researchers say this indicates that the California standard has become the de facto standard for the entire country.

Research indicated that many of the flame retardants found in the couches are associated with hormone disruption, neurological and reproductive toxicity, and cancer. New research published in mid-November determined that prenatal and childhood exposures to the chemicals were associated with poorer attention and cognition, and decreased fine motor coordination.

Unfortunately, there is no way for consumers to distinguish a couch made with chemicals apart from one made without. The Duke study indicated that nearly all of the couches labeled with a TB117 tag contained flame retardants, but two-thirds of the couches without the label also contained flame retardants.

“If they live in California, the odds are very high that their couch will have flame retardants,” Blum said.

The chemicals are semi-volatile, and they are constantly moving out of products and into the air. They make their way into human and animal bodies by way of house dust. We ingest them when we touch contaminated dust and put out hands in our mouth. Young children, who tend to put their hands in their mouths, are more susceptible.

“It’s not true that you need to sit on the couch or that it needs to be old,” Blum said. “The whole life of the couch, it’s continually emitting the chemical.”

Another simultaneously published study from the Silent Spring Institute sampled house dust from 16 homes in California. They found that most homes had at least one of these harmful retardants in levels that are above the federal health guidelines.

The American Chemistry Council represents the chemical companies who make the flame retardants. “Furniture manufacturers use flame retardants to meet established fire safety standards, which help save lives,” read a statement responding to the Duke study’s findings. “There is no data in this study that indicate that the levels of flame retardants found would cause any human health problems.” The statement cited a study that indicated flame retardants can increase escape time.

However, multiple studies have demonstrated that including the chemicals in couches provides no meaningful effect on fire safety.

“The fire just laughs at these chemicals,” said Dr. Vytenis Babrauskas, a leading fire safety engineer, in a statement accompanying the Duke study. Other studies have demonstrated that adding the chemicals to furniture and setting fire to them actually made the fire more toxic. It significantly increased levels of smoke, carbon monoxide and soot. “Given their toxicity, it’s really the worst of both worlds,” Babrauskas said.

“There’s no benefit to the chemicals in the way they’re used in couches,” Blum said. She added that by phasing out one chemical – like Penta or Tris – usually only means that it is replaced with another. Its replacement is often just as toxic, or not enough is known about its potential for harm.

“You just keep going from one toxic chemical to the other,” Blum said. “That’s why if there’s no benefit, the thing is to change the standards.”

In June 2012, Governor Jerry Brown announced that he had directed state agencies to revise the TB117 requirement to improve fire safety without the need for flame retardants. If the changes are implemented, consumers should be able to purchase chemical-free furniture by summer of 2013. A public comment period on the changes will begin in January.

In the meantime, Blum recommends that consumers protect themselves by frequent hand-washing and vacuuming with a HEPA filter or using a wet mop. Other tips and information can be found on the Green Science Policy Institute website.

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