Are There Flame Retardants in Your Furniture?
Flame retardants are notorious for their disastrous human health effects, and though the fight to remove them from consumer products has been well-publicized, we still may not be as safe as we think. Environmental scientist Arlene Blum, Ph.D. became famous for her work on flame retardants in the 1970’s, when she discovered that chemicals being added to children’s pajamas were causing hormone disruption, reduced IQ, and even cancer.
Since those early days, Blum, who worked with us to decode the issues with PFOAs, has devoted her life to removing toxic chemicals from our homes, and today, as director of the Green Science Policy Institute at Berkeley, she advises everyone from new moms to major retailers on how to prevent exposure to toxic, bioaccumulative chemicals. She’s had some major victories over the years—including sweeping changes to California flammability standards that allowed producers to make flame-retardant-free household products for the first time in decades—but says that there’s still work to be done. For example, it’s still difficult to make children’s car seats to standard without toxic chemicals, meaning children are being exposed to them regularly. Below, Blum explains where we are now, where she hopes we can go, and how to limit your exposure. (P.S. For further education on this topic, we highly recommend Merchants of Doubt and The Chicago Tribune’s brave and groundbreaking “Playing with Fire” series.)
A Q&A with Arlene Blum, Ph.D.
What types of products contain harmful flame retardants?
Flame retardants are often added to foams and plastics in electronics (for example, they can be added to the plastic cases around TVs and computers), furniture foam, foam padding underneath carpets, building insulation, children’s car seats, and automobile seats. Since many of these products are not labeled, it’s hard for consumers to identify when flame retardants are present.
Beginning in the 1970’s, a California furniture flammability standard known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) led to the use of flame-retardant chemicals in furniture and baby products. While TB117 didn’t specifically require the use of flame retardants, these chemicals were the easiest way to meet the standard. TB117 was followed throughout much of the US and Canada, and those older products are now a major source of household exposure to flame retardants. If your furniture has a TB117 tag, it likely contains flame retardants.
Some good news is that most new furniture will now have a tag that instead says the furniture complies with an updated standard, TB117-2013, and include a check box specifying whether or not the furniture contains flame retardants. Most new US furniture does not have these chemicals. [More on this below.]
How do flame retardants make their way from products, like furniture, into people?
Most flame retardants are continuously migrating out of products into dust and air. When dust contaminated with flame retardants gets on your hands, you can end up eating the flame retardants along with your sandwich, for instance.
Sadly, babies and young children are very vulnerable to these chemicals, not only because toddlers’ hand-mouth behavior increases their likelihood of exposure, but also because their bodies and brains are still developing. Many flame retardants can persist in our bodies for years, and they can pass through the placenta from a mother to her growing fetus. These chemicals also accumulate in breast milk, further exposing the newborn to flame retardants (to clarify, although this fact is concerning, scientists agree that the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks posed by these chemicals). We recommend that anyone who is pregnant or looking to become pregnant reduce their household exposures to flame retardants by keeping dust levels down and, when possible, removing items that are likely to contain flame retardants (such as furniture with a TB117 label).
Many flame retardants are persistent in the environment, and can travel long distances in the air or ocean currents. These chemicals also build up in wildlife, with the highest levels in top-of-the-food-chain predators like birds of prey and marine mammals (who experience the same toxic health effects as humans). Unbelievably, Arctic people have among the highest levels (in humans) of pollutants like flame retardants, in part because marine mammals make up a large part of their diet.
It’s not just people who are exposed to flame retardants in the home. Cats have 10 to 100 times higher levels of flame retardants than humans because they lick their fur. In fact, a mysterious epidemic of hyperthyroid disease in cats may be linked to exposure to flame retardants in the home.
What should consumers look for if they want to keep these chemicals out of their home?
Since we are exposed to flame retardants from household dust, one of the best ways to reduce our exposure is by frequent handwashing, particularly before meals. Keeping dust levels down through regular vacuuming with a HEPA filter (readily available, but you do need to check, as not all models have them), wet-dusting, and mopping frequently are other practical ways to reduce flame retardants in the home.
While chlorinated tris was phased out of the majority of consumer products a few years ago, it’s still used in many car seats and car interiors to meet standards. A new car seat without flame retardants has been announced on the market. As it has been difficult to find car seats without chlorinated tris or other flame retardants, we recommend that children spend as little time in their car seat as possible (which means avoiding carriers that move from car to stroller). Children shouldn’t eat in their car seats, and they should wash their hands as soon as they leave the car (same goes for parents, as chlorinated tris is also used in automobile seat padding).
As mentioned, many furniture manufacturers are no longer using flame retardants, thanks to an update to California’s furniture flammability standard, TB117-2013. Most furniture that meets this standard will also include a label stating whether the product contains flame retardants. If instead, your furniture is older and has a TB117 tag, it likely contains flame retardants. You can replace the old foam filling with new foam that does not contain flame retardants. This can be done at most foam stores and upholstery shops, and you might consider doing so even if you plan to donate or sell your old furniture to prevent passing on the harmful flame retardants to the next owner.
For more information about how to find other household products without flame retardants, visit GreenSciencePolicy.org.
Do we need flame retardants, though, in order to be safe from fire? How big of an impact do they make?
Flame retardants are used to meet flammability standards, but in some products, flame retardants as currently used do not improve fire safety.
One reason is that when products containing flame retardants burn, they can produce large amounts of the soot, smoke, and carbon monoxide that are the major causes of fire deaths. Indeed, most fire deaths and most fire injuries are caused by toxic gases. High levels of cancers have been reported in the firefighter community and this may be related to their exposure to dioxins and furans, which are produced by the burning of flame retardants in fires.
More effective ways to reduce fires—and without the use of toxic chemicals—include using functioning photoelectric smoke detectors and automatic sprinkler systems, as well as fire-safe lighters and candles.
Why do we continue to use flame retardants even though they are problematic?
Updating regulations is never easy. The flame retardant producers (who profit from standards leading to the need for their chemicals) have been determined to make sure standards don’t change, so they can continue to sell their chemicals. When California tried to change to an updated standard that would increase fire safety without the use of flame retardants, the chemical producers spent more than 20 million dollars to prevent changing the standard.
The sad fact is that we don’t have adequate regulations to make sure chemicals used in consumer products are safe for our health. Once a chemical is on the market, it can take decades for scientific research to establish links to health harms. And when a problematic chemical is finally banned or phased out, the replacement chemical is often similar in chemical structure and has similar adverse health effects. In the case of flame retardants, it can be difficult or impossible to prevent the use of problematic chemicals as long as flammability standards are flawed.
The Green Science Policy Institute has developed the Six Classes approach, which aims to prevent the cycle of replacing one harmful chemical with another by considering reducing entire families of harmful chemicals that share similar properties or effects. We have recently released consumer-friendly videos about each of the six classes of chemicals of concern, including flame retardants. To learn more about how to protect your family’s health by reducing your exposure, check out all the short videos here.
What is the current state of legislation around flame retardants?
Thanks to the 2013 update to California’s furniture flammability regulation, use of flame retardants in upholstered furniture and children’s products has declined. This regulation does not prohibit the use of flame retardants in furniture—it means the furniture can pass flammability tests without adding flame retardants.
Journalists have played a vital role in exposing industry tactics to sell flame retardants; the Chicago Tribune’s investigative series “Playing with Fire” was a major player in bringing these issues to light. The Tribune series documented deceptive tactics on the part of the flame retardants industry that had prolonged the use of chemicals that were harmful to public health and did not provide a fire safety benefit. These award-winning articles contributed to the change of California’s fire standards, so toxic flame retardants are no longer required in furniture.
But flame retardants could come back into furniture. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Fire Protection Association are considering new standards for upholstered furniture, which could lead to an increased use of flame retardants. These developments are being monitored by scientists and environmental health organizations. Preventing new standards that would increase use of harmful flame retardants without benefitting fire safety is an ongoing challenge.
Related: Common Household Toxins
Arlene Blum, Ph.D. is a biophysical chemist, visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Department of Chemistry, founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, and author of Annapurna: A Woman’s Place and Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.