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A Hot Topic: We’re Surrounded by Toxic Flame Retardants. What Can We Do?

January 6, 2014

If you sat down this holiday season, you likely sank into a piece of furniture embedded with flame retardants. In America, we have accepted these chemicals – whether we knew it or not – as necessary to our safety. For almost forty years, an outdated California standard has ensured that flame retardants lie in furnishings throughout our homes: curtains, couches, mattresses, and carpets. But do such chemicals truly protect our lives?

Diverse media outlets – from The Chicago Tribune to an HBO documentary to Dr. Oz – have recently dug into this question. Together, they offer compelling evidence that our current use of flame retardants is harming us more than helping us. Also, these media sources highlight the ways consumer groups, activists, and politicians are taking positive steps toward reducing our exposure to harmful toxics.

In 2012, the Chicago Tribune peeled back the curtain on the flame retardant industry with a series titled, “Playing with Fire.” The report suggests that flame retardants, as currently tested and used, do not provide meaningful protection from fire dangers. Because fires ignite on upholstery, or the outer coverings of furniture, soaking foam cores with chemicals does little to prevent fires from starting.

While flame retardants don’t clearly prevent fires, they do persist in our homes and our bodies. Because manufacturers typically measure flame retardants on the scale of pounds and ounces – not, say, micrograms – our furniture represents a significant stockpile of these chemicals. Over time, some of this stockpile makes its way into the air we breathe. It volatilizes as gas or dust that we cannot help but inhale. Some flame retardant chemicals – the halogenated or brominated kind – warrant more concern than others. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), still common characters in the flame retardant alphabet, have been significantly associated with harmful effects like: reproductive failure, significant drops in IQ points, and even cancer.

If homes do burn, PBDE’s get released along with a host of other chemicals in an acutely dangerous toxic cloud. Such a simultaneous release of chemicals puts fire fighters at elevated and unnecessary levels of risk for terminal diseases.

Given the harmful long-term effects of many flame retardants, why do we keep using them? The Tribune report describes how various industrial groups have led the public to believe in the benefit of these chemicals. Part Two of the series tells the fascinating history of how tobacco companies became one of the strongest backers of flame retardant standards. In the 1970s, amidst gathering evidence that cigarettes caused house fires, tobacco lobbyists shifted the blame from the ignition to the fuel, from cigarettes to furniture. One result, CA Technical Bulletin 117, marked a legal success for tobacco lobbyists that has governed furniture makers for nearly the last forty years. The law required high levels of flame-retardants in all kinds of upholstered furniture products. Because manufacturers typically lacked the means to produce a different set of California-specific furniture, the law affected furniture makers throughout the nation.

The Tribune report also condemns the chemical companies and lobbyists that have pushed for continued use of toxic flame retardants. The report shows how industry groups have used false testimonies, powerful front groups, and questionable scientific evidence to argue for the safety of flame retardant chemicals.

A November HBO documentary, Toxic Hot Seat, adds both legs and hope to the Tribune’s story. The documentary uses the Tribune reporters’ investigative work as the main thread in its exploration of the flaws of America’s toxic regulations. The film follows the positive ripple effect that the Tribune stories have had in many corners of the country – from Maine to California.

The collective action of journalists, concerned consumers, politicians, and advocacy groups is helping to change harmful toxics laws and manufacturing practices. For example, in 2013, California governor Jerry Brown updated Technical Bulletin 117 to more effectively protect public health. Starting January 1, 2014, furniture manufacturers are no longer required to use toxic chemicals to achieve a passable level of fire resistance. Also, some juvenile products – such as booster seats and floor mats – are exempt from meeting the required resistance standards. Consumers in California will now have the option to buy furniture that isn’t embedded with toxic PBDE’s. And infants, those most vulnerable to toxic effects, should experience less exposure to the toxics in products that surround them.

In a recent segment on flame retardants, Dr. Oz, the popular TV personality and purveyor of healthy habits, suggests that consumers take advantage of the new option to buy less toxic, or “greener,” furniture. Buying greener furniture, the show says, is one of the best ways to avoid harmful exposure to PBDE’s. The Tribune, Toxic Hot Seat and Dr. Oz all suggest that non-toxic furniture can be just as flame retardant, or even more so, than furniture soaked with PBDE’s.

By making greener furniture, manufacturers can save money and materials by reducing the amount of flame retardants in foam. Also, by altering the materials and weaves of upholstery, they can more effectively prevent fires than by using toxic chemicals. The Tribune, for example, points to a test by Research Underwriters Laboratories which found that surrounding foam with a fire resistant layer proved more effective at slowing fire than adding flame retardants to the foam.

The Dr. Oz segment also lists a number of other simple actions that consumers can take to protect themselves and children from the dangers of toxic chemicals in furniture. For example, we can: wash our hands often (especially children’s hands); practice frequent damp dusting to minimize harmful air-borne exposures; and avoid furniture made with polyurethane foam.

Media of many types are pushing the invisible dangers of flame retardants into mainstream discussion. And the discussion, at least from the above sources, is prompting action. Laws and manufacturing processes are starting to change.

We need more change. If long-term exposure to flame retardants is currently harming us more than helping us, then isn’t it about time that we change how me make the things we’re lying and sitting on?


Helpful Resources

For Consumers:

  • Concerned consumers and parents who want to know more about the issues surrounding flame retardants, or to get involved in public campaigns for safer chemicals, can visit the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families site.
  • For the latest health and legal info on toxics in the state of Washington, check out the Washington Toxics Coalition.
  • NRDC page on toxics in home furniture.


For Businesses:


– Cyrus Philbrick

Communications Manager

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