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Reports: Toxic Flame Retardants Ubiquitous in Sofas, Household Dust

Carcinogens, hormone disruptors from flame retardants pervasive

Common Dreams staff

Toxic chemicals from flame retardants have been documented in couches as well as household dust, according to studies published Wednesday. (photo: crimfants via flickr)

Highly toxic chemicals in flame retardants, including carcinogens and hormone disruptors, are widespread in people's homes, according to two studies published Wednesday in Environmental Science & Technology.

Putting flame retardants in household products may seem well-intentioned, but the effects, as these studies show, leave people exposed to a veritable cocktail of toxins in their homes.

Environmental Working Group (EWG), a public health and environment watchdog organization, explains the findings:

The first study found questionable or downright toxic chemicals in 85 percent of foam cushion samples collected from couches in 102 homes, including chlorinated Tris – a fire retardant known to cause cancer in laboratory animals. The researchers, led by Duke University’s Heather Stapleton and UC Berkeley’s Arlene Blum, found that the samples contained several other fire retardants that can cause cancer, hormone disruption or nervous system damage, laboratory studies indicate.

The second study, by researchers at the Silent Spring Institute in Boston, found the chemical Tris, along with 40 other fire retardant chemicals, in household dust collected from many California homes. In addition to finding fire retardants that are currently being applied to couches, kids’ products and electronics, this study also detected several classes of chemicals that were taken out of production in the 1970s and 2000s because of toxicity fears – but that still linger in the dust of people’s homes.

Earth Island Journal points out the California connection to the flame retardants, and why the seemingly good regulation may be "useless":Flame retardants are not the lesser of two evils — they do not save lives — and yet they are ubiquitous.

Both of the household studies published today cite California’s furniture flammability standard — Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) — as the main culprit for the prevalence of chemicals in our homes. Flame retardant levels were higher in couches bought in California than anywhere else and children's exposure to PBDE’s in California is among the highest in the world. Unfortunately, due to the size of California’s market the state’s flammability standards have become the de facto standard. Couches across the US contain flame retardants.

California’s standards require that couch foam withstand a direct flame for 12 seconds, in order to reduce the residential fires. Despite seemingly good intentions, this regulation is useless, argues fire-safety scientist and former head of the combustion-toxicology program for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Vytenis Babrauskas. The chemicals applied to foam in order to comply with the standards are ineffective, Babrauskas told The NYT.  The standard is based on applying a flame to a bare piece of foam. “If you take a cigarette lighter and put it on a chair,” he says, “there’s no naked foam visible on that chair.” Before the flame gets to the bare foam, where the flame retardants are applied, it ignites the fabric upholstery, which then allows the fire to burn long enough to ignite the foam beneath.

Babrauskas says that TB 117 compliant chairs catch fire just as easily and burn just as hot. “This is not speculation,” he says. “There were two series of tests that prove what I’m saying is correct.”

Similarly, Dr. Donald Lucas, a combustion scientist from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley says: “It is the exposure to toxic gases, soot, and smoke during combustion that is responsible for most fire deaths and injuries, according to National Fire Protection Association data.”

Flame retardants are not the lesser of two evils — they do not save lives — and yet they are ubiquitous.

Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst with EWG, echoed these comments.

"These dangerous chemicals are turning up everywhere largely because of a California regulation that requires that millions of pounds of toxic fire retardants be added to foam furniture, even though there is absolutely no evidence that they provide meaningful fire protection, said Lunder. "They may even make fires more dangerous for first responders."

"Petty much everyone in the country with a couch or a chair with foam have as much as a pound of a chemical like DDT or PCB in their home." Reporting in Mother Jones on the sofa study, Kate Sheppard adds this quote on the ubiquity of the chemicals:

"Petty much everyone in the country with a couch or a chair with foam have as much as a pound of a chemical like DDT or PCB in their home," Dr. Arlene Blum, the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a coauthor of the paper, told Mother Jones. "Most people think the goverment protects them, and that if something's in their couch it must be safe."

So why are these chemicals allowed? PR Watch explains:

While changes are needed to the California standard, federal law regulating chemicals also needs an overhaul. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is woefully inadequate to protect consumers from toxic chemicals like these flame retardants. Of the 80,000 chemicals on the market in this country, the EPA requires testing for only about 200 because it only requires testing for newly introduced chemicals, not those "grandfathered in." Blum told the Center for Media and Democracy, "Although EPA has found dangerous flame retardant chemicals at high levels in consumer products, under TSCA they lack the authority to protect our health."

From 2005 to 2012, the chemical industry has given $39 million to candidates for federal office and spent $333 million on lobbying at the federal level in its successful campaign to prevent Congress from updating TSCA, according to an October report by Common Cause.

In response, GSPI and many other chemical safety advocates support the Safe Chemicals Act of 2012, which would bring TSCA up to date and address many of its shortcomings. Blum notes, "The continued replacement of one toxic flame retardant with another is a vivid example of why we need the Safe Chemicals Act." Although the bill is unlikely to move forward this year, the bill will almost certainly be reintroduced in 2013.

While the two studies focus on the household contamination caused by the toxins in flame retardants, a report released this week from Alliance for the Great Lakes shows that "scientists are beginning to see alarming trends of an increasing multitude of chemicals found in the water," with flame retardants possibly reaching drinking water.  The group reports:

Lake Michigan’s surface waters are affected, with six of the top 20 chemicals detected -- among them flame retardants, synthetic fragrances, bisphenol A (BPA), and a popular cholesterol-lowering drug -– found in the open lake waters. Current data shows that, after processing in a treatment plant, drinking water drawn from Lake Michigan may not be significantly burdened with contaminants, with only one chemical -- a flame retardant -- detected of the top 20 identified in the report.

The Silent Spring Institute, which produced the flame retardants in house dust study, offers a list of suggestions on how to reduce your exposure to the chemicals.

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