Home sweet home? Flame retardants in your home

By Abigail Fredenburg and Caitlin Kennedy, PhD
Updated November

Could your couch increase your chances of getting cancer?  Possibly.  In November 2012, two new studies found that every day we are exposed to chemicals that were intended to protect us from household fires but are hazardous to our health.1, 2 Toxic flame retardants are used in upholstered furniture such as couches, chairs, and mattresses, as well as in drapery and carpets.  They are even in our televisions and plastic-cased electronics.  Flame retardants have also been found in foam in baby products such as baby carriers, high chairs, strollers, and nursing pillows.2

It made sense to require flame retardants that would prevent or slow the spread of fire, but we now know those same chemicals can cause cancer. They also can affect children’s growth and brain development.

In 2013, Dr. Linda Birnbaum, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Services, explained that new research used 3-D imaging to demonstrate how synthetic flame retardants “interfere with the body’s natural hormones.”3 When chemicals affect adult hormone levels, they can be very harmful, such as reducing fertility or harming a developing fetus.

New research shows why we should be concerned.  University of Cincinnati’s Dr. Aimin Chen and colleagues studied pregnant women and their children to determine the effect of prenatal exposure on learning and behavior.  The researchers measured the amount of common flame retardants, PBDEs, in 301 pregnant women at 16 weeks of pregnancy and tested their children during their first 5 years of life.  Pregnant women with higher levels of PBDEs had children who tended to have more learning problems at ages 2, 3, 4, and 5 years, and the children also were more likely to be hyperactive.4

These findings have important implications for children’s health and are why previous flame retardants, such as brominated “Tris,”or TDBPP, was banned from use in children’s pajamas in the late 1970s and PentaBDE and OctaBDE were phased out of commercial products, beginning in 2004.12  Despite these laws, we are still exposed to these and even more harmful chemicals.  Why?  Because banned chemicals are replaced by new chemicals that we don’t yet know much about.  As shown in the study of PBDEs, these new chemicals can also be dangerous, and in some cases may be more dangerous. Researchers found higher-than-expected levels of one such chemical, organophosphate esters, in the outdoor air in 5 sites around the U.S. Great Lakes. This new chemical was found in amounts 100 to 1,000 times higher than older PBDE’s.5

Even after flame retardants are phased out, we keep getting exposed when we use old furniture passed on to family members, or sold at garage sales.   Because there is no standard process to safely dispose of furniture containing flame retardants, these chemicals remain in our environment via discarded furniture, dust, and air.2 Flame retardant chemicals can even be measured in tree bark. Research shows the highest levels are in densely populated areas, such as Toronto, Canada, but high levels are also found in remote regions of Indonesia and Nepal.6

Researchers at Duke University led a national study to identify flame retardant chemicals in the polyurethane foam used in couches.  TDCPP was the most commonly detected flame retardant, often used to replace PentaBDE and OctaBDE in couches manufactured after their 2004 phase out.  TDCPP is a carcinogen and is very similar to the long-banned Tris (TDBPP).  Of the 102 couches tested, researchers detected toxic flame retardants in 85% of them.2

In a second study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute, dust samples were collected from 16 homes in California.  House dust is the primary way Americans are exposed to toxic flame retardants, by inhaling and ingesting them.1  Researchers found Tris in 75% of the homes despite its ban from children’s pajamas more than 30 years ago and its listing in California as a chemical known to cause cancer.

California has a higher furniture flammability standard than other states, known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117).  Because of its large size, it is often easier for companies to follow California’s standards for all their products, not just those sold in California.  Manufacturers also make their products comply with TB117 to protect themselves against law suits.7  But, as a result, they are risking consumers’ health by exposing  Americans to higher levels of flame retardants in their homes than they would otherwise be.2

In general, California’s stricter standards (on organic foods and on air quality, for instance) have paved the way for protections across the country, but in the case of flame retardants, their standards have been harmful.

We all depend on government regulators to keep us as safe as possible, by making our homes, cars, airplanes, foods, and medicines as safe as possible. Unfortunately, current standards for flame retardant furniture are not based on solid research.8  Fortunately, California has responded to criticisms of their standards by adopting new guidelines in November 2013 based on the latest research. The new guidelines require upholstery and fabric covers to be smolder proof, a new test that simulates fires from a lit cigarette. The changes are meant to more accurately reflect the situations that usually lead to fires in homes, and make it possible for manufacturers to use lower amounts of less toxic chemicals. As a consequence, manufacturers will use different, and presumably safer, flame retardants for products sold in California and across the country. The adopted changes will go into effect in January 2015.9

Since many of us can’t buy all new furniture to help reduce exposure to these toxic chemicals, we need to try to keep our homes as dust free as possible.  Remember, as these flame retardants are released or shed from upholstered furniture and other household products, they accumulate in house dust.  Vacuum regularly, use a wet-mop, and wash your hands frequently. Have young children who spend a lot of time on the floor wash their hands regularly, too.

If you are thinking of buying a new mattress or furniture, the Green Science Policy Institute provides a reference guide for furniture made without added flame retardants.10  There are now also many “green” furniture companies that use all natural and non-toxic materials like wool and organic cotton that are not only better for you and your family, but also for the environment.  Keep in mind that not all furniture comes with a tag outlining what it is made from.  You may want to check online to find out more before you buy furniture that could expose yourself and your loved one to chemicals for years to come.

  1. Dodson, R. E., Perovich, L. J. et al. After the PBDE phase-out: A broad suite of flame retardants in repeat house dust samples from California. Environmental Science & Technology 2012.  
  2. Stapleton, H. M., Sharma, S. et al. Novel and high flame retardants in US couches reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE phase out. Environmental Science & Technology 2012.  
  3. 3-D Images Show Flame Retardants Can Mimic Estrogen in NIH Study. (August 19, 2013). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from href=”http://www.nih.gov/news/health/aug2013/niehs-19.htm”>http://www.nih.gov/news/health/aug2013/niehs-19.htm. (Accessed August 23, 2013).  
  4. Chen, A., Yolton, K. et al. Cognitive deficits and behavior problems in children with prenatal PBDE exposure. Presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting 2013. Abstract located at http://www.abstracts2view.com/pas/view.php?nu=PAS13L1_3550.8 (Accessed May 7, 2013).  
  5. Salamova A, Ma Y, Venier M, and Hites RA. 2013. High Levels of Organophosphate Flame Retardants in the Great Lakes Atmosphere. Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Accessed October 7, 2013.  
  6. Salamova, A., and Hites, R.A. Brominated and chlorinated flame retardants in tree bark from around the globe. Environmental Science & Technology 2012.  
  7. The Green Science Policy Institute. Cancer free couches. http://www.greensciencepolicy.org/cancer-free-couches (Accessed December 21, 2012).  
  8. Whaley, Paul. “Debating the environmental costs and safety gains of use of flame retardants.” Health and Environment. http://healthandenvironmentonline.com/2013/01/16/debating-the-environmental-costs-and-safety-gains-of-use-of-flame-retardants/ (Accessed January 17, 2013).  
  9. California Department of Consumer Affairs: Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation. Proposed Regulations. href=”http://www.bhfti.ca.gov/about/laws/propregs.shtml”>http://www.bhfti.ca.gov/about/laws/propregs.shtml. Accessed November 22, 2013.  
  10. The Green Science Policy Institute. Furniture without added flame retardants: Fire safety without harm. http://blog.greensciencepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/FlameRetardantFreeCouches.pdf (Accessed December 19, 2012).  

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