New Research Finds Highly Toxic Flame Retardants Widespread in Homes, Furniture

Washington, D.C. – Harmful fire retardant chemicals are turning up in everything from furniture to dust in American homes, researchers report in two new studies published today (Nov. 28), a finding that underscores how California’s misguided fire safety rules have created a pervasive environmental hazard for much of the country.

The first study found questionable or downright toxic chemicals in 85 percent of foam cushion samples collected from couches in 102 homes, including chlorinated Tris – a fire retardant 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, found the chemical Tris, along with 40 other fire retardant chemicals, in household dust collected from many California homes. In addition to finding fire retardants that are currently being applied to 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.

“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,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst with EWG. “They may even make fires more dangerous for first responders.”

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. The Alliance for Toxic Free Fire Safety, a coalition of advocacy groups, is calling for dramatic changes in fire safety laws to preclude the use of toxic chemicals.

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 concentrationsof 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.

In response to mounting pressure, Israel Chemicals Ltd., the sole manufacturer of one of the chlorinated Tris chemicals (TDCPP), which was found in both studies, recently announced it will stop selling TDCPP for consumer products in January of next year.

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