As you read this article right now, maybe you’re seated somewhere comfortable, like your couch.
Don’t get too cozy: a recent peer-reviewed study found that most homes tested in California during a 15-year period contained levels of at least one flame retardant that exceeded a federal health guideline.
Flame retardants are chemicals found primarily in sofas, but also in mattresses, including crib mattresses and bumpers, baby pajamas, clothing, electronics, and other products. They have been linked to cancer, learning problems, and hormone disruption, all dangerous – and easily avoidable –consequences.
Flame retardants might be slightly less awful if they stayed inside the couches or televisions in which they are placed. Unfortunately, no such luck: Flame retardants located deep inside foam cushions migrate into dust, and are eventually ingested by anyone who enters the home – but especially the littlest, most vulnerable among us.
Dr. Robin Dodson, a scientist with the Silent Spring Institute and a co-author of the recent study, noted that infants and toddlers are at a higher risk for exposure to flame retardant chemicals in dust because they spend much time on the floor. This puts their small, growing bodies at great risk for health problems in the near and distant future, and it isn’t good for the rest of the family to be inhaling these toxic fumes either.
Leading scientists, including an independent fire safety specialist quoted in the Silent Spring Study, have noted that flame retardant chemicals provide “no meaningful protection against the hazard it addresses – furniture ignited by small flames.”
In fact, an investigative series in the Chicago Tribune earlier this year reported flame retardants were only initially put into furniture because of the tobacco industry: rather than develop fire-safe cigarettes to reduce incidences of house fires, tobacco companies pressed for so-called fire-safe furniture – by using flame retardant chemicals.
Flame retardants are comprised of various chemicals, some of which have been banned, most of which have not. Research linking them to health problems in humans, like altered brain development in fetuses, has caused some flame retardants, like PentaDBE, to be phased out.
Sadly, their influence endures: Older couches retain these chemicals, and continue to emit them into house dust. Two of the largest manufacturers of the commonly-used flame retardant chlorinated tris, have pledged to stop making it.
That’s good news, since the World Health Organization, The National Cancer Institute and the National Research Council have all concluded that chlorinated tris is a cancer risk. However, as Dr. Julia Brody, executive director of the Silent Spring Institute and a co-author of the study, observed, “When one toxic flame retardant is phased out, it's being replaced by another chemical we either know is dangerous or suspect may be.”
Proving its head is firmly in the sand, the American Chemistry Council maintains that flame retardants are a necessary means to preventing fires. They also note that no data in this particular study proves that the chemicals cause health concerns in humans – but should we ignore other studies that have established this link? Thankfully the EPA pledged in July to begin investigating safer alternatives to these toxins. However, until a solution is found, we have to be careful consumers.
One of the primary reasons dangerous amounts of flame retardants exist in new couches is due to California’s strict flammability standards, requiring their use. Rather than omit flame retardants from furniture sold in states without these standards, manufacturers sell the same furniture nationwide. Until California Governor Jerry Brown makes good on his promise to amend this requirement, which affects the health of people coast-to-coast, there are several steps you can take to help protect your family from these hazardous substances.
Buy furniture, comforters, mattresses, and pillows made of organic, healthy materials including down, wool, or cotton. Since wool is naturally flame resistant, products containing wool may not contain a separate chemical flame retardant. Check manufacturer labels to be sure of what you’re buying. If you’re not in the market for a new couch or mattress just yet, make sure to ventilate your home by regularly using fans, or opening windows and doors. Also, wash hands frequently so you don’t transfer flame retardant residue from your hands to your mouth, and use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter, which is more efficient at trapping small particles.
Learning about and acting on the dangers of flame retardants is just one of the many ways you can continue to defend your kids – and yourself – from the perils in our environment. Your home should be a healing, soothing place where your body and mind can be at ease – on your couch, and everywhere else.