Say what? Let us explain.
Way back in 1975, California created a furniture flammability standard in an effort to boost California residents’ escape time in the event of a household fire by 12 seconds. This prompted upholstered furniture makers to use materials (mostly foam) that contain fire-retardant chemicals. And, since furniture makers didn’t want to create separate models just for Californians, nearly all furniture made since then has been laced with these chemicals. While the intent may have been to help reduce residential fire deaths, the decades-old California standard may have caused more harm than good.
These chemicals, including pentaBDE and chlorinated tris (which the state of California lists as a carcinogen), are used to treat foam beneath furniture’s fabric surface. Unfortunately, the chemicals can migrate out of the furniture and into the air. Since these molecules are heavy, they drop onto household dust. Though hand-to-mouth contact, we ingest this dust — about 30mg per day, with kids ingesting twice that amount. On average, dust in California homes contains 10 times the PBDEs of that found in other states — and 200 times the amount found in European households, according to a new study from the Silent Spring Institute. Because we ingest household dust, it’s no surprise that studies show that our bodies contain these fire-retardant chemicals; levels of pentaBDE have appeared up to nine times higher in Californian children than in similar-aged children elsewhere in the U.S., and up to 100 times higher than similar-aged kids in Europe.
Is this chemical contact worth the few-second boost that retardants are supposed to provide? Arlene Blum, biophysical chemist, visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Department of Chemistry and founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, emphatically says no. She's not the only one, either. “The furniture and foam industries, firefighters, health officers — everybody wants to see this standard changed,” Blum says.
Photo: Courtesy of EcoBalanza.
But, wait — don't these chemicals save lives? The answer isn't as simple as it may seem. When tests were done to measure the efficacy of the fire retardant chemicals, they measured the contact of a lighter-sized flame to an uncovered piece of foam. However, in actual furniture fires, the fabric surface lights first, creating large flames that then reach the retardant-infused, underlying foam. By that time, the retardants are deemed ineffectual in fire suppression, providing at best, a two-second delay in the foam burning and emitting much more soot, smoke, and toxic chemicals than non-fire-retardant-treated furniture would. Considering most fire victims die from smoke or toxic gases (not from burns, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) the effects of these retardants seem to do more harm than good.
Then there’s the matter of how our health is affected without the threat of a fire (which is most of the time). "Several thousand peer-reviewed studie show [chemical] accumulation and health harm in lab animals and humans," Blum says. "And, there are about 20 human studies that show pregnant woman experiencing reduced fertility, interference with with brain development; children suffering from permanent lower IQs; neurological, endocrine, thyroid, and immune system problems; and cancers.”
Blum, whose research successfully influenced regulation change in banning tris flame retardants from children’s pajamas in the ‘70s, and the Green Science Policy Institute she founded are making headway in changing current regulations. A newly proposed standard, TB117-2013, includes new standards for cigarettes (which is the leading cause of furniture fire deaths) and fabric. If implemented, it should successfully reduce household fire deaths in a way that was not achieved by using toxic chemicals. If the pending regulation is approved, manufacturers may begin to make less toxic furniture as soon as this fall. “It will provide increased fire safety without possible harm from fire retardant chemicals," she says. "This is a big win-win for both fire safety and our health.”
While change is on the horizon, there are things you can do to better protect yourself and pets now. Companies such as EcoBalanza and Ekla Home offer furniture that hasn't been treated with flame retardants, or pre-1975 vintage furniture, and pieces that contains polyester, down, wool, or cotton, instead of polyurethane foam will also reduce the toxicity in your home. If buying new furniture is not an option, little things like vacuuming often with a HEPA-filter vacuum to cut down on lingering (and chemically-spiked) house dust and frequently washing your hands to minimize hand-to-mouth dust ingestion can help.
And while these discoveries can leave us disgusted and shell shocked, Blum reminds us to keep perspective when it comes to toxicity in our homes. “There’s only a small number of harmful chemicals at high levels in our homes. If we know what these chemicals are, then we can decide not to use them and be healthier.”
It’s certainly enough to give us hope and put the love back in our loveseats.
Photo: Courtesy of EcoBalanza.