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Toxic Fire Retardants Are Everywhere in Homes, New Studies Find

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Harmful fire retardant chemicals are turning up in everything from furniture to dust in American homes, researchers report in two new studies being published today (Nov. 28), a finding that underscores how California's misguided fire safety rules have created a pervasive environmental hazard. 

The first study found questionable or downright toxic chemicals in 85 percent of foam cushion samples collected from couches in 102 homes. I was one of the consumers who donated a piece of my Crate and Barrel couch (where my elfin son was photographed on his first Christmas) and learned that it contained a "chlorinated Tris" fire retardant (TDCPP) known to cause cancer in laboratory animals. The researchers, led by Duke University's Heather Stapleton and UC Berkeley's Arlene Blum, found that the samples contained several other fire retardants that can cause cancer, hormone disruption or nervous system damage, laboratory studies indicate. 

The second study, by researchers at the Silent Spring Institute in Boston, measured the chemical found in my couch, along with 40 other fire retardant chemicals in household dust collected from California homes. In addition to finding fire retardants that are currently used in couches, kids' products and electronics, this study also detected several classes of chemicals that were taken out of production in the 1970s and 2000s because of toxicity fears - but that still linger in the dust of people's homes. The study also detected three types of chlorinated Tris.

The researchers, who published their work in the leading science journal Environmental Science and Technology, are working with a coalition of health and environmental advocacy groups called the Alliance for Toxic Free Fire Safety to highlight the problem posed by toxic fire retardants and change fire safety laws that mandate the use of chemical fire retardants that are posing a threat of cancer and neurological damage to the populations they were meant to protect. Previous research has shown that the fire retardants in foam products break down and contaminate household dust with microscopic particles that can stick to kids' hands, toys and other items. Eventually they make their way into our bodies.

Studies have shown that the bodies of nearly all Americans tested have measurable levels of one type of fire retardant known as PBDE. In 2008, EWG found that children have on average three times higher concentrations of PBDE in their bodies than their mothers do, likely from household products. And recent studies have found that babies with the highest exposures to PBDEs in the womb had measureable deficits in learning and development over the first four years of life. 

These dangerous chemicals are turning up everywhere largely because of a California regulation that requires that millions of pounds of toxic fire retardants be added to foam furniture, even though there is absolutely no evidence that they provide meaningful fire protection. They may even make fires more dangerous for first responders. The fire safety rules were adopted following a coordinated lobbying effort by chemical companies and big tobacco, which was exposed in a Chicago Tribune investigative series, "Playing with Fire." 

The ubiquitous health threat posed by fire retardants is another example of the nation's inadequate system for regulating toxic chemicals. When a new chemical is invented, it is reviewed and typically approved by the Environmental Protection Agency in a brief three-week process. The manufacturer typically provides virtually no safety data or details on how the chemical will be used. New chemicals can be added to consumer products for years before outside experts begin to figure out what types of adverse effects they may have on people or the environment.

One of my first research projects at EWG was to highlight the hazards posed by PBDEs in mothers' milk and household dust and a worrisome increase in wild fish in San Francisco bay. Chemical companies tired of the scrutiny in 2006 and vowed to take PDBE-containing products off the market, but the EPA found it had little power to enforce the voluntary phase out and evaluate the toxicity of replacement chemicals. Strict secrecy protections prevent EPA from sharing the chemical identity of these substances with chemists who study their effects on people and wildlife, and companies are not required to disclose the information to the public.

This weak system leaves people vulnerable to ever-changing toxic perils. When PDBEs fell out of favor, manufacturers replaced them with chemicals that raised new concerns. The new Silent Spring study found that while PBDE levels in California homes dropped from 2006 to 2011, levels of a replacement compound sold as Firemaster 550 rose. 

I learned from the study that being an expert on fire retardant toxicity wasn't any help to my family. In addition to my Crate and Barrel couch, my 2006-era Britax carseat, Brest Friend nursing pillow and glider rocker cushions all contained chlorinated Tris, which first became controversial as far back as the 1970s. That's when Arlene Blum, one of the couch study authors detected a form of brominated Tris in the urine samples from children wearing fire retardant treated pajamas. My mother was one of many consumers who petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban it in children's pajamas. Thirty-plus years later we're learning that it's everywhere in American homes. 

The type of Tris that turned up in the foam cushions of my couch, TDCPP, is on the way out. In response to mounting pressure, Israel Chemicals Ltd., the sole manufacturer, recently announced it will stop selling TDCPP for consumer products in January of next year. But I can't help wonder what will be next. Without an effective system to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of chemical additives, manufacturers can use nearly any chemical to replace TDCPP. Scientists and advocates are already hot on the trail of Israel Chemicals' new replacement chemical, named "Fyrol HF-5." But who knows what fire retardants we might find in my son's new "big boy" car seat? Hopefully none, but I'm not counting on it.

If you're as concerned as I am and unwilling to wait a decade to learn if today's products are safe, you should write to California' Bureau of Home Furnishings and tell them you support the efforts to reform fire standards (TB117-2012). 

Then take these steps to keep your family's exposure to a minimum:

  • When possible, buy items that don't contain foam, such as cushions and nursing pillows filled with polyester instead.
  • Throw away old items if foam is exposed or starting to break down. (Check to see if it's sagging in places or otherwise changing shape.) Some companies sell replacement pads for old glider rockers; if you live outside California, ask that they be made with foam that contains no fire retardants.
  • Repair ripped covers on foam furniture.
  • Vacuum and dust! These chemicals accumulate in household dust, so dust often with a moistened cloth. Use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter to get pollutants out of your rugs and floors. These filters trap small particles more efficiently and will likely remove more contaminants and allergens.
  • Take precautions when removing foam carpet padding or reupholstering old furniture. Remove all scrap foam from your house, keep dust contained to the area where the work is done (and keep children away) and clean up with a HEPA vacuum when finished. 

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