It’s Time to Get Flame Retardants out of Our Couches

Eight years ago, my 4-year old daughter and I gave blood samples for an Environmental Working Group study on Flame Retardants in Mothers and Their Toddlers.  When our results came back from the lab, both of us had chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers– or PBDEs– in our blood, substances so toxic that they are now banned in Europe and no longer allowed to be made in the United States. The concentration in my daughter’s blood was six times higher than mine.

What happened?  How did these chemicals get into our blood?  Unfortunately, the same way they have probably gotten into yours.  We sat on the couch.

This month, Senator Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, introduced S-627 An Act to Prevent Children and Families from Harmful Flame Retardants.  If enacted, the Bill will ban several types of flame retardants from children’s products and home furniture.  Massachusetts residents, especially parents of young children, should support this ban.

Since 1975, furniture manufacturers have put chemical flame retardants into practically every piece of upholstered furniture and foam baby product in America.   According to Arlene Blum, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute, thousands of scientific studies have linked flame retardant chemicals to long term health problems, including lowered IQ, attention deficit disorder, thyroid problems, impaired fertility, and cancer.

Increased health risk might be a worthwhile tradeoff if flame retardants actually reduced the risk of fire, but a 2012 Chicago Tribune expose found that, in addition to being toxic, flame retardant chemicals don’t slow the spread of fire.  According to Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts Director for Clean Water Action, “We have all been duped into thinking that we were being protected from fires by having these toxic chemicals in our furniture, but just isn’t true.”

Even worse, commonly used flame retardants become more toxic when burned, increasing risk for fire fighters. Rich Paris, President of Boston Firefighters Local 718, says that Massachusetts fire fighters have cancer rates three times higher than the general public and adds, “These chemicals are causing cancer in our firefighters, and, I think we will find, in civilians as well.”

Sonya Lunder, Senior Analyst at the Environmental Working Group, explains that flame remain in the foam for the life of the product and are emitted as the foam disintegrates over time.  Chemicals migrate into house dust and are inhaled, showing up in the blood or urine of every subject tested, with children almost always having levels much higher than their parents.

Up until January 1 of this year, it was almost impossible to buy furniture without flame retardants.  That’s because a California regulation called Technical Bulletin 117 required polyurethane foam used in furniture and children’s products to be treated with chemicals so that the foam could resist an open flame for 12 seconds.  Because California has a large consumer market, the state rule became the de facto national standard.  After a major push by environmentalists, public health advocates, and fire fighters, California legislators changed the law.  The new regulation, TB-117 2013, no longer requires chemical flame retardants– but it doesn’t ban their use either.

That’s where Creem’s Bill comes in.

The bill bans polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), chlorinated tris, and other “chemicals of high concern” from furniture and children’s products manufactured or sold in Massachusetts.

PBDEs are the flame retardants used in foam from 1975 to 2004.  The Environmental Protection Agency no longer allows penta or deca-BDE to be manufactured and restricts their import; therefore, a Massachusetts ban on these chemicals would mostly be a statement of support.

Since 2005, manufacturers have used other flame retardants, such as chlorinated tris (TDCPP).  But, chlorinated tris is a carcinogen that can damage DNA and affect brain development. In 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned chlorinated tris from use in children’s pajamas.

While it might seem obvious that a chemical too toxic for children’s pajamas is also too toxic for crib mattresses, changing mats, nursing pillows, and strollers, tests conducted by Duke University researcher Heather Stapleton show that chlorinated tris has been the most widely used flame retardant since 2005.

Other newly introduced flame retardants, such as Firemaster 550, have also been linked to health problems, but the body of research is more limited.

If passed, the ban on flame retardants would not take effect until 2016.

Until then, people who want to know what chemicals are in their polyurethane foam products can send samples to for testing.  Several furniture makers now offer chemical-free replacement cushions.

For those shopping for new furniture, Room and Board on Newbury Street says it no longer has flame retardants in any of its furniture. Crate and Barrel and Circle Furniture advertise the availability of some flame retardant-free options.   Zimmans in Lynn does not add chemicals to its residential upholstery, because, as Mike Zimman notes, “I wouldn’t want those chemicals in my house.”

But many stores and furniture makers, especially those serving discount markets, only tell customers that their furniture “meets federal standards”, a statement that doesn’t provide any real information.  Or store personnel admit that they don’t have any information about flame retardants.

Meanwhile, Richard Paris of the Boston Firefighters Union, says of Creem’s Bill to ban harmful flame retardants, “I support it one hundred percent.”

Laura Spark is a member of the Governing Board for the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, a coalition coordinated by Clean Water Action that advocates for restrictions on the use of toxic chemicals in Massachusetts. She and her daughter, Naomi Carrigg, participated in a 2004 Environmental Working Group study on flame retardants in the blood of American women and their toddlers. 

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