Flame-Retardant Chemicals Create Unhealthy Homes

Common chemicals designed to delay fires are poisoning people and the environment. Here’s how to protect yourself.

March 16, 2010

Frequent cleaning is your best defence against toxic flame-retardant chemicals.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When Oregon elementary-school teacher Molly Grove heard an environmental scientist give a lecture on the environmental and health dangers of flame-retardant chemicals, she was alarmed. “This is a huge issue that people don't seem to know about, and it seems like a big problem, both for the environment and for people’s health,” she says. She decided to use this incidence of chemical pollution as a teaching tool for her math and science classes, and asked them to go home and take pictures of hang tags indicating that the furniture complied with a California law requiring that all upholstered furniture be fire resistant. Of her roughly 50 sixth-grade students, about 40 returned with photographs indicating that their furniture was flame resistant. “We don’t live in California,” she says. “So why is this here?”

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The chemicals at issue are found in nearly everything made with polyurethane foam—upholstered furniture, baby strollers, car seats, pillows—and in electronics like TVs, computers, and cellphones. And scientists are very concerned that the most common class of flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs) are showing up in animal tissue as far away as the Arctic Circle. Tests from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly all Americans have these chemicals in their bodies—because once you're exposed it takes years for the chemicals to get eliminated. Mothers even pass them along to their babies via breast milk.

THE DETAILS: These flame-retardant chemicals have been linked to a number of human health problems. The form of PBDE most commonly used in furniture was linked to altered fetal development, thyroid problems, infertility, as well as neurological problems in children, before those health concerns eventually led to a phase-out by U.S. foam manufacturers. Similarly, the primary PBDE used in electronics will be phased out over the next three years, since research has linked it to negative impacts on brain function and cancer risk.

Read on for ways to keep flame retardants out of your house.

Unfortunately, the chemicals used to replace PBDEs haven’t been adequately tested either, and an increasing number of studies are finding that they are potentially just as hazardous as PBDEs. One flame retardant in use today as a PBDE replacement, tris dichloropropyl phosphate (often referred to simply as “tris”), was banned in the 1970s, when clothing manufacturers were using it on children’s sleepwear, because it was found to cause cancer. In a recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, that same chemical was found to lower men's semen quality, which could lead to fertility problems. Although these replacement chemicals don’t linger in our bodies as long as PBDEs, they are very persistent; 98 percent of the study’s 50 male participants had them in their bodies.

WHAT IT MEANS: The reason these chemicals are so widely used isn’t due to federal law but to a California state law, called Technical Bulletin 117, that requires all upholstered furniture to be flame resistant. How manufacturers go about doing that is up to them, but often, these chemicals are the only way to make furniture flame resistant, says Heather Stapleton, PhD, assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and the author of multiple studies on the hazards of flame retardants. “The foam is so flammable,” she says, “and the only way to pass flame standards is to treat it with chemicals. But first you need to ask, is it really important for a piece of furniture to withstand an open flame for 20 seconds?” And that’s just about as long as these chemicals will stop a fire, says Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, because the chemicals aren’t used to treat upholstery fabric, which itself can be highly flammable.

As with most of the chemicals used in consumer goods today, furniture manufacturers rarely advertise that a sofa or chair has chemically treated foam—and, says Stapleton, they may not even know themselves. “Sometimes furniture manufacturers have to sign a proprietary agreement [with foam and fabric suppliers] saying they won’t test the material to find out what's inside,” she notes. In which case consumers are completely left in the dark about what they’re bringing into their homes.

Read on for ways to keep flame retardants out of your house.

Does it make sense to fireproof our furniture this way? Aside from the questionable benefits of a 20-second delay, the number of deaths and injuries related to furniture fires is relatively small, 100 deaths and 130 injuries annually, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). “There isn't much debate in my mind of the benefits versus the costs,” says Molly Grove. For her part, Grove is organizing a “Stop TB117” campaign in her hometown of Bend, Oregon, that she hopes will get chemically treated furniture out of the state. Failing that, she says, her second priority is educating people about the issue. “We want to get tons of consumer information out there so that people actually know what they're buying and can make educated choices.”

Here are a few ways to make your own educated choices about furniture and chemical exposure:

•  Control what you can, don’t panic about what you can’t. Don't be afraid to sit your couch. Despite the widespread use of flame retardants in furniture, it may not be your biggest exposure source, says Stapleton. “We think we get exposed from food and from house dust,” she says, “but which products emit the highest concentrations remains a big question. We can talk about cleaning and limiting exposure to dust, but the only way this can be changed is by changing regulations.” Let your senators and representatives know you support the Environmental Protection Agency’s current moves to strengthen the decades-old (and very weak) Toxic Substances Control Act and force chemical companies to demonstrate a chemical’s safety before putting it into widespread use.

•  Clean. While cleaning and dusting won’t eliminate your exposure to flame-retardant chemicals, it helps, Stapleton says. For one, PBDEs, though banned, can still crop up in carpet padding, she notes, because most of that is recycled polyurethane foam from old furniture. The chemicals are released and bind to household dust, so regular vacuuming and wet-dusting of hard surfaces is a good practice.

•  Put in a special request. When you are buying furniture, Stapleton recommends requesting that the manufacturer use foam that hasn’t been treated with chemicals. It may increase the price, but it’s cheaper than buying organic cotton or wool furniture without chemicals (though you could certainly go that route if it matches your budget). And it’s a good way to let furniture companies know you want less-toxic furniture.

•  Avoid furniture that meets California’s TB117 law. Although rare, there are a few companies that make furniture that doesn’t comply with California law. Finding this out requires some detective work. Retail salespeople don’t usually know whether a piece of furniture has been chemically treated, so you need to call manufacturers directly and try to find out from them. In general, avoid buying furniture with a hang tag that says “Complies with CA TB117” or has similar language. If you don’t see one, call the manufacturer and find out if they know whether their foam is flame-retardant free.

•  Make your home fire-safe. Making furniture flame resistant may feel reassuring, but as Blum says, the chemicals add only 20 seconds to the amount of time you’d have to get out of your home in the event of a fire. You’re better off taking proper steps like changing the batteries in your fire alarms, buying a fire extinguisher (and checking it regularly to make sure it works), and, most important, giving up smoking. Cigarettes are the leading cause of furniture fires, according to the CPSC.