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May 30 2013

How Worried Should We Be About Flame Retardants in Our Furniture?

By at 11:50 am

couch with flame retardantsI am a champion worrier, and I do not limit my worrying to the logical or the likely. I worry about there not being enough food at Shabbat dinner, and about stranger danger. I worry about my step-daughter refusing to eat vegetables and becoming anemic, and about animals escaping the zoo. But these days, I spend most of my time worrying about two big, terrifying environmental dangers: flame retardants in furniture, and fracking.

Flame retardants are chemicals (and it’s not just one or two chemicals, it’s lots and lots of different chemicals) that in theory prevent your furniture–everything from couches and mattresses to nursing pillows–from catching on fire. A law called TB 117 passed in California in the 1970s that required that all furniture sold in California be able to withstand 12 seconds of exposure to an open flame. This might sound like a great idea except for two things–the flame retardant chemicals are severely toxic and carcinogenic, and they don’t actually work at preventing things from catching on fire.

Since furniture makers don’t want to make two kinds of couches–those for California and those for the rest of the country–they started just putting flame retardants in all furniture. So for the past 30-40 years, any piece of furniture you’ve bought domestically has been full of these chemicals. And we’re just now beginning to realize some of the effects these chemicals can have. There are lots of flame retardants, and their effects haven’t been widely studied yet, but generally speaking we know that they interfere with hormones, reproductive systems, thyroid and metabolic function, and neurological development in infants and children. They’ve been linked to everything from obesity to anxiety. And pregnant mothers who are exposed to lots of flame retardants can have altered thyroid function, resulting in low birth weight for babies, and impaired neurological development.

Flame retardants (and tons of other nasty chemicals) can even get into babies via their mothers’ breast milk. It turns out that breastfeeding is a great way to get rid of some of the most toxic flame retardants that have built up in your body–lactating mothers offload 2-3% of their total PBDE (a flame retardant chemical) body burden per month, which would be great except all that PBDE is going straight into the baby. This is such a big problem that some Scandinavian countries, like Norway and Sweden, known for being strong advocates of breastfeeding, are considering moderating their intensely pro-nursing policies.

So, how worried should you be? Well, here’s a money quote from Heather Stapleton, assistant professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University: “My concern is the elevated exposure infants and toddlers are receiving…A high proportion of infants are in physical contact with products treated with these chemicals almost 24 hours a day. Some of these chemicals are either known or suspected carcinogens. During the first year of life, infants are still developing, particularly their brain. And some of these flame retardant chemicals have chemical structures similar to known developmental neurotoxicants (e.g. organophosphate pesticides).” (Full article here)

There is some good news: earlier this year a new law was proposed in California that would create new flamability standards for furniture. These standards would no longer require that furniture contain toxic flame retardants, and would better address where fires often start–on the outside, not the inside of furniture. The new law has to be approved, and the earliest we can expect it to go into effect is July 2014, according to the Green Science Policy Institute, the most reliable source I’ve found on these issues.

In the meantime, what can you do about your furniture? If you can’t afford to/don’t want to get rid of your furniture (and really, who can afford to?) there are a few steps you can take to decrease your and your children’s exposure: wash your hands frequently, dust, vacuum  and mop a lot. A lot of flame retardants actually get out and hang out in the dust in your house–kids then spend a lot of time interacting with and breathing in the dust. Less dust, less exposure to flame retardants.

Old furniture, particularly if it’s pre-70s, is probably alright. The newer the furniture, the more likely it is to have lots of flame retardants in it. When you are ready to get new furniture, you have a few options: you can get futons filled with cotton or wool, which are naturally flame retardants and won’t be treated with chemicals. Wood and wicker furniture is fine, too. There are a few companies that make safe couches, including Ekla Home, CondoSofa, Eco BalanzaCisco HomeViesso, and Robert Craymer.

It’s also worth it to ask at your local furniture store when you’re ready to buy. My partner and I recently wanted to get a new couch, and after reading up on flame retardants, we were determined to avoid them. I was a bit scared to buy a couch online, without seeing it in person or sitting on it. At a local furniture and housewares store, Hipster Home, I asked the proprietor to see if he could get me some information about couches he could get me without flame retardants, and he called the good people at Gus Modern, a company out of Canada. They wrote back, “All of our products meet or exceed government and industry standards for health and safety. As part of our requirement to meet California’s de facto standard for fire safety (California Technical Bulletin 117) our upholstery foams are treated to resist flammability. This standard is met without the use of banned chemicals, HBCD, PBDEs or Chlorinated Tris, and without the use of substances listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of chemicals identified as requiring ‘further assessment.’ We support continued regulation and clarity regarding product safety standards, and on the use and restriction of chemicals in consumer products.”

Ultimately we decided to go with a Gus Modern sofa. It’s stylish, was not super expensive (but also not at all cheap), and durable. I don’t feel 100% confident that it has no dangerous chemicals in it, but I feel like I did my homework, and the company seems to want to avoid the chemicals for the right reasons.

It’s important to begin asking about this at furniture stores to make clear to the stores that you want safer furniture, so even if you decide to buy something online, it’s worth it to call your local stores and ask.

In conclusion

Worry/Don’t Worry: Worry

Who Should Worry: Everyone with upholstered furniture purchased in the US after the 1970s.

The Danger: Chemicals that interfere with hormones, reproductive systems, thyroid and metabolic function, and neurological development in infants and children. They’ve been linked from everything to obesity to anxiety.

What you can do: Buy new furniture from a manufacturer that does not use flame retardants (best case scenario) or wash hands frequently, dust, sweep and mop frequently, in order to eliminate lots of dust, which can be full of the chemicals.

Further Reading:

Are Flame Retardants Safe? Growing Evidence Says No

Toxic Flame Retardants: Why Does Kids Exposure Vary Based on Race and Socioeconomics

What To Do About That Couch?

How Dangerous Is Your Couch?

California’s Fire Code Update: The End of Toxic Flame Retardants?

Playing With Fire, an award winning series of article from the Chicago Tribune that broke this story open

The Green Science Policy Institute has a handy printout on how to reduce toxic flame retardants in your home. Also check out their Safe Kids campaign.

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on Kveller are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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