Flame Fighting Chemicals Abundant in House Dust and Sofas

Chemicals are commonly added to furniture, carpeting, and even electronic devices to limit the risk of fire. But at what cost?

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Chemicals are commonly added to furniture, carpeting, and even electronic devices to limit the risk of fire. But at what cost?

Two new studies published journal Environmental Science & Technology highlight the potential dangers of flame retardants — including chemicals linked to cancer and to hormone disruption — that are probably present in nearly every American home.

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One of the two new studies focuses on sofa cushions. Researchers from Duke University, Boston University, and University of California Berkeley took cushions from sofas across the U.S. and found that there were suspect flame-retardant chemicals in 85% of them. The second study shows how those chemicals then likely migrate out of furniture and into the air we breathe. Scientists at Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts analyzed household dust in California and found that, in most of the 16 homes tested, there was at least one chemical present at potentially unsafe levels.

“What’s concerning about this is that so many of these chemicals we’re finding are associated with hormone disruption or cancer, or haven’t been tested,” says Robin Dodson, a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute. “It’s worrisome.”

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The chemicals detected include polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which the Environmental Protection Agency claims “may cause liver toxicity, thyroid toxicity, and neurodevelopmental toxicity.” (PBDEs have been phased out of manufacturing since 2004, following increased regulation of potentially harmful chemicals.) Also present in household dust were chemicals, such as the insecticide DDT, that have been banned for many years for their potential to cause cancer and disrupt reproductive development. The researchers also found tris, an agent known to break up DNA in chromosomes that was banned from children’s sleepwear because of its cancer-causing potential, as well as newer chemicals that are being used as a replacement for PBDEs. The study authors complain that these newer chemicals have not yet been adequately tested for safety.

Why the prevalence of so many flame retardants? The compounds are present in home furnishings not so much to prevent fire deaths as to comply with a single, little-known California ruling about the combustibility of furniture. As the New York Times Magazine explained in an article earlier this year:

Since 1975, an obscure California agency called the Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation has mandated that the foam inside upholstered furniture be able to withstand exposure to a small flame, like a candle or cigarette lighter, for 12 seconds without igniting. Because foam is highly flammable, the bureau’s regulation, Technical Bulletin 117, can be met only by adding large quantities of chemical flame retardants — usually about 5 to 10 percent of the weight of the foam — at the point of manufacture.

And while that regulation applies only to California, manufacturers decided to apply the regulation to all of their products rather than creating special runs for couches destined for the west coast. The result is furniture that now complies with the policy across the United States.

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The irony, according to some researchers of flame retardants’ health effects, is that the chemicals may not actually make us any safer from fire. The chemicals do help to prevent things from lighting up. But they may simultaneously make a fire more dangerous once it starts, some research suggests. That’s because the fire retardants themselves, once they start burning, produce more smoke, more soot, and more carbon monoxide than foam alone.

Because of the mounting health and environmental evidence against chemical flame retardants, California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, called for a revamping of the state’s rules around furniture flammability, which may be a first step toward addressing the widespread presence of the chemicals in American homes. Still, environmentalists argue that it likely won’t get dangerous toxins out of our living rooms any time soon.

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That’s because chemical regulations allow manufacturers to produce and sell new products with minimal safety testing, which is how the flame retardants were introduced into cushions in the first place. TIME‘s Bryan Walsh explains in his 2010 analysis of the poorly understood toxins in plastics:

The burden of proving chemicals dangerous falls almost entirely on the government, while industry confidentiality privileges built into the [Toxic Substances Control Act ] TSCA deny citizens and federal regulators critical information about how substances are made and what their effects are. In the years since the TSCA became law [in the 1970s], the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been able to issue restrictions on only a handful of chemicals and has lacked the power to ban even a dangerous carcinogen like asbestos.

As Silent Spring’s Robin Dodson says: “We need to stop being so hindsighted in approach, and start testing these chemicals before we use them.”

In the meantime, replacing older couches with newer ones (those made after 2005 were less likely to contain PBDEs), vacuuming with a HEPA filter and wet-mopping to thoroughly remove dust can reduce exposure to stubborn particulates that may have migrated from treated furniture.

20 comments
duhil
duhil

Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation has mandated that the foam inside upholstered furniture be able to withstand exposure to a small flame, like a candle or cigarette lighter, for 12 seconds without igniting. This regulation can saving many people.


Sincerely,

http://www.hiloninsulation.com/products-thermal-insulation/

PedroCarrillo
PedroCarrillo

I just read a post about this same chemicals on matresses on another blog. I think it´s time for everyone to stand up and stop consuming all this processed and toxic things. Even the wall paint is full of heavy metals that we keep breathing for years even if we can´t smell it! 

p.nathan.russo
p.nathan.russo

this post is very interesting! thank you very much

Lala
Lala

I've been reading a lot about chemicals in our food and surroundings, and it infuriates me. I read an article (link below) that even lists toxic levels of chemicals in fruit juices, that our we and our kids drink! I hope more and more people start to care about these issues.

http://geekchic.io/2010/11/america-is-being-lead-poisoned/

hlmelsaid
hlmelsaid

Unsafe security levels(Judicial case at USA court against Obama,UN,vodafone company-AS my documents at: www.helmyelsaid.blogspot.com)

Sw422
Sw422

The Romans never noticed the effect their lead plumbing had on their population either.  

There's a reason to shop at Ikea despite their cheap furniture -- the Swedes have to test chemicals before they put them into their environment.  So a lot of their items are free of the poisons we Americans drench our household products in.

WandaFry
WandaFry

BAA. Rich BAA,

Keep grazing with your head down.

The fact that these chemicals cause you to be dumber, easier to control, sicker and less likely to reproduce are just a coincidence.

YOU don't NEED to spend money or ask questions about why these chemicals are everywhere or who put them there there.

Clearly you have been exposed..

abelinone
abelinone

If anyone has an interest in this subject please read some of the very excellent research by Dr. Robert Hale at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

RichSnyder
RichSnyder

This is NOT surprising given that it was the law (I think) for such things to be burn resistant - probably mattress material too.  BUT I  hadn't thought of the chemical effect on humans.  This is just another one of those things that are unknown.  To step it up a notch, consider what happens when you mix the effect of fire retardant with something else like aspartame or BHA.... no one will ever know the effects of mixing these chemicals.  Obama is the first person I heard mention it, but he probably won't pursue it (which is good... I don't want to pay for such research).  I suspect something like this causes autism or ADD - possibly even some allergy/auto immune diseases -  these things are definitely on the upswing.