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.