Beyond Flame Retardant Chemicals

Dear EarthTalk: What is being done to get toxic flame retardants out of children’s furniture and other products?                                                                                — Mary Sweetland, Seminole, FL

couch41 225x150 Beyond Flame Retardant Chemicals

That couch might look inviting, but it could be off-gassing toxic chemicals from flame retardants within the cushions’ foam. New rules just now going into effect in California should eliminate many of these chemicals from new furniture and household items in that state, but environmentalists would like to see the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission issue similar rules nationwide. Credit: Roddy Scheer, roddyscheer.com.

Putting flame retardant chemicals in furniture seemed like a good idea back in the 1970s to help protect against the risk of fire, but our insistence on safety has come back to haunt us. The chemicals “off-gassing” from these flame retardants can be toxic, especially to the kids they are meant to protect in the first place. “Scientists have found that exposure to toxic fire retardant chemicals at critical points in development can damage the reproductive system and cause deficits in motor skills, learning, memory and behavior,” reports the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG). Some of these chemicals have even been linked to cancer.

Manufacturers started putting flame retardants into their products in the mid-1970s after legislators in California passed a law requiring polyurethane foam in furniture to resist catching fire after exposure to an open flame for 12 seconds. Given the importance of the California market and the fact that other states soon enacted similar requirements, adding flame retardants to furniture foam became standard practice across the country.

But a flurry of research in the early 2000s called into question both the effectiveness and safety of common flame retardants, and ever since environmentalists have been working hard to eliminate such questionable chemicals from our living rooms. In 2013, California finally updated its rule on flame retardants, replacing the old open flame test with a new smolder test that assesses the ability of the furniture covering—not the foam padding—to withstand catching fire. State regulators estimate that some 85 percent of furniture fabrics currently on the market can pass the new smolder test without the benefit of flame retardant chemicals. In addition, a wide variety of kids’ products, including car seats, play mats, highchair pads and infant mattress pads, are no longer required to contain flame retardants. Additionally, California now requires labels on upholstered furniture sold there detailing whether or not flame retardants are present.

Unfortunately, consumers outside of California will have to do their own research to steer clear of flame retardants. EWG suggests checking in directly with manufacturers to see if their products contain flame retardants, or limiting your shopping to retailers that specialize in so-called “organic” (read: chemical-free) furniture such as Elka Home, Furnature, Green Sofas, Eco Select Furniture and Viesso, among others.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), another leading non-profit active in the effort to ban toxic flame retardants, recommends replacing not just the fabric but also the foam during reupholster projects, as most foam manufactured before 2004 is likely off-gassing toxic chemicals. Likewise, NRDC says to be careful removing old carpeting, as the degraded scrap foam in the underlying padding can also release copious amount of noxious flame retardants. Other ways to minimize flame retardant exposure include regular wet-mopping of the floors around the house and using a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter. Consumers can also take a stand against toxic flame retardants by signing onto NRDC’s MoveOn.org petition calling on the U.S. Consumer Safety Product Commission to adopt a new nationwide standard to prevent the use of toxic chemicals in furniture foam and other everyday items.