SAN FRANCISCO – Americans have been exposed to potentially harmful flame retardant chemicals for decades. A new study, conducted in Northern California, shows that replacing a couch, or even just swapping the foam in upholstered furniture, decreases the levels of flame retardant chemicals in household dust.
The findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Environment International. The study was conducted by researchers at the Environmental Working Group, Silent Spring Institute, Green Science Policy Institute, University of California at Davis, and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
“This study provides further evidence that the bans on flame retardants in upholstered furniture in California and other states help to reduce flame retardant levels in the home,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG and a study co-author. “Replacing a couch or sofa with furniture made without flame retardants makes a significant difference in people’s everyday exposures to these chemicals.”
Exposure to flame retardant chemicals has been linked to serious health issues, including cancer, neurotoxicity, thyroid disease and decreased fertility, as well as deficits in motor skills, attention and IQ in children.
For the new study, two groups of households in Northern California either replaced a couch or the foam in their couch with items that did not contain flame retardants. Dust samples were collected in the room before the furniture replacement and then again at intervals of six, 12 and 18 months after the replacement.
Concentrations of three types of flame retardant chemicals – three different polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs; three chlorinated tris; and one organophosphate – were widely detected in participants’ homes. All but one of the measured flame retardants decreased in homes after furniture was replaced. Significant amounts of flame retardants in homes decreased after entire pieces of furniture or furniture foam was replaced, creating a healthier environment.
The study began in 2015, shortly after a new state rule, Technical Bulletin 117-2013, took effect. The new standards updated the flammability standard of upholstered furniture sold in California and rolled back the state’s “open flame” requirement to a “smolder” test, more easily met without the use of added flame retardants. Furniture made without flame retardants is now explicitly labeled.
In 1975, California passed a misguided furniture flammability regulation, which led furniture makers to use large amounts of flame retardant chemicals in polyurethane foam cushioning. Because manufacturers didn’t want to make one set of products for the California market and another set for the rest of the country, they put flame retardants in foam products sold nationwide – furniture, carpet padding, baby products and even the foam cubes in gymnastics pits.
One of the biggest dangers of some flame retardants is that they bioaccumulate in humans, causing long-term chronic health problems as levels of these toxic chemicals build up in our bodies. But their presence can diminish over time. “Once chemicals are banned, they slowly decrease in our homes and our bodies,” said Stoiber. “For example, 10 years after PBDEs were taken off the market, scientists found the levels in breast milk declined by 40 percent.”
Although many toxic flame retardant chemicals have been phased out in the U.S., they were replaced with poorly studied alternatives that could also harm health. “When manufacturers stop using flame retardants in one product, like baby pajamas, they often switch to similar chemicals that scientists haven’t yet evaluated for safety,” said Stoiber.
Here’s where flame retardants are likely to be found in our homes and daily lives.
Flame retardants migrate from products to air, house dust and the outdoor environment. You can inhale or ingest them or absorb them through your skin.
Infants and young children are especially at risk, since they crawl and play on the floor, where contaminated dust settles, and frequently put their hands in their mouths. Kids often have higher levels of flame retardants in their bodies because they swallow contaminated dust.
EWG’s milestone studies have helped lay the groundwork for regulatory changes that will improve public health protection.
Like many toxic chemicals, flame retardants are loosely regulated. Manufacturers aren’t required to prove that they’re safe or even that they keep products from going up in flames.
Although researchers have linked numerous flame retardants to serious health effects, federal regulators never banned their use in all products.
States led the charge to protect citizens from the risks of flame retardants in consumer products. States like California passed laws or regulations to address the health problems they posed.
On December 27, 2020, the Covid-19 Regulatory Relief and Work from Home Safety Act was signed into law, mandating nationwide compliance with California’s flammability standard for upholstered furniture. California’s TB117-2013 smolder test will be the law nationwide.
What you can do
Avoid flame retardants in new products. Buy those made without flame retardants – this is easiest when shopping for couches, easy chairs and kids’ products. It is more difficult for car seats and nearly impossible when you buy a car or electronics.
Test your furniture. Most older couches and easy chairs contain tris or other worrisome flame retardants. Duke University will test foam from your furniture for free. You can buy new, flame retardant-free foam if you choose to reupholster older furniture.
And take these simple precautions to minimize your exposure:
- Do your homework before you buy baby products. Although many baby products have been exempted from the fire safety regulations that prompted companies to add chemical retardants, some manufacturers still use them. Find out if fire retardants are in products before you buy, and read our guide to fire retardants in children’s products.
- Planning to reupholster your couch? Replace the foam, too. If you’re planning to reupholster your couch, consider replacing the old foam: It likely contains flame retardants. Ask your upholstery shop to find retardant-free foam.
- Inspect foam cushioning for damage. Make sure cushion covers are intact, as exposed foam helps flame retardant chemicals escape more quickly. Items such as car seats and mattress pads should always be completely encased in protective fabric.
- Use a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter. These vacuums are more efficient at trapping small particles and will likely remove more contaminants and allergens from your home. High-efficiency “HEPA filter” air cleaners may also reduce contaminants bound to small particles.
- Be careful when removing old carpeting. The padding found in homes today likely contains flame retardants. Old carpet padding can break down by the time it’s exposed and removed for replacement. Isolate the work area from the rest of your home.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action. Visit www.ewg.org for more information.