THE DETAILS: Researchers collected blood serum from 343 pregnant women and tested it for 10 different forms of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), chemicals used as flame retardants in furniture, carpeting, and electronics. Those women were pregnant at the time of the study and completed surveys about how long it took them to get pregnant and how long they had tried to conceive. After controlling for factors such as age, reproductive history, and other medical problems, the researchers found that each tenfold increase in PBDE levels in the blood was associated with a 30 percent increase in time-to-pregnancy (the time a couple started trying to the time they conceived).
WHAT IT MEANS: The health affects of flame-retardant chemicals on humans hasn't been well studied, and this study is only one of two that has looked at their influence on people. Previous research on PBDEs in rats suggest the chemicals interfere with thyroid hormones, which play a role in fertility, and that they can affect neurological development. Those studies provided enough evidence of harm that two forms of PBDEs, penta-BDE and octa-BDE (used in upholstered furniture, car padding, and carpeting), have been banned, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that three companies will voluntarily phase out the use of deca-BDE (the form most commonly used in electronics) by 2013. However, such bans and phase-outs may have little effect, considering the flame retardants' widespread use before the bans went into effect and the fact that, once they enter the environment, they never break down. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detected PBDEs in 95 percent of Americans tested, and the chemicals have been detected as far away as the Arctic Circle. Perhaps more concerning, say environmental health advocates, is that the replacements for these chemicals aren't adequately studied either, and there's no hard evidence that flame retardants have prevented enough fires to justify the health risks.
Read on to learn how to keep PBDEs out of your home.
Protecting yourself from flame retardants can be difficult, but there are ways to keep them out of your home, as well as some hope on the horizon:
• Demand answers. Don't buy a new piece of upholstered furniture without asking what flame retardants were used. While federal regulations require only mattresses to be flame retardant (and that's often done with barrier materials, not chemicals), California law requires that all upholstered furniture sold in that state be fire resistant (and studies have found that Californians have higher levels of PBDEs in their blood than residents of the other 49 states). Some furniture manufacturers nationwide have started making all their furniture comply with California's law, so when buying furniture, find out if it was made to comply with that standard. A recent ruling from the Environmental Protection Agency might make it easier to find out; the law requires companies that manufacture, process, or distribute chemicals to provide notice to EPA if they learn that a chemical presents a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.
• Find flame-retardant-free furniture. If you can't find out what chemicals are used in a new piece of furniture, look for furniture WITHOUT tags that say "complies with California Technical Bulletin 117," the law that requires furniture be flame retardant. If money is no object, you can purchase couches made from organic cotton, wool (which is naturally flame resistant), or latex. These usually start at $3,000 and go up from there, but they're the safest way to ensure a chemical-free couch. A few flame-retardant-free furniture retailers include Q Collection, Bean Products, and Furnature. Alternatively, consider using a daybed as a sofa; mattresses are usually made flame resistant with synthetic barrier fabrics such as Kevlar and melamine, which, while not exactly planet-friendly, cause fewer negative health complications than PBDEs (it's still a good idea to grill the manufacturer, though, just to be sure chemicals weren't used).
• Keep it clean. There's little way to know if your existing furniture is treated with PBDEs or not, but if it's made with polyurethane foam, it's best to err on the side of caution and assume that it is. Because PBDEs aren't bound to foam (or plastic, when they're used in electronics), they get released into air and bind to dust as your furniture and electronics age. Vacuum your carpets and your furniture regularly, and damp-mop your electronics to keep dust at a minimum.