This week, we’re bringing you a series of stories about firefighters and cancer. Firefighters say they’re worried about getting exposed to certain kinds of toxic flame retardant chemicals. These chemicals are everywhere. They’re called polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs. Firefighters are exposed to these chemicals in the line of duty, but they aren’t the only ones exposed.
For decades, these chemicals have been added to the foam in our couches, our chairs, and the padding underneath our carpets.
But they don’t stay put.
Arlene Blum is a chemist, and the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, California.
“These chemicals are continuously migrating out of the foam in our furniture, going into dust and we’re exposed by getting dust on our hands and then eating something,” she says.
She says hundreds of studies link these chemicals with serious health problems. Things like cancer, hormonal changes, fertility problems and reduced IQ in kids.
“If you bought your couch between 1975 and 2005 when it was globally banned, unfortunately you probably have a chemical called penta brominated diphenyl ether and it’s a chemical that’s halfway in structure between a PCB and a dioxin,” Blum says.
She says these chemicals are bad for us and they stick around in our bodies for a long time.
Blum says the main replacement for penta-BDE is a chemical called chlorinated tris.
"Which was the same chemical our research contributed to getting removed from kids' pajamas in the '70s, and that is also known to be cancer-causing and neurotoxic and has a number of harmful properties. The other main flame retardant is called Firemaster 550. There haven't been many studies because the manufacturer usually doesn't give samples to scientists," she says.
Turning off the tap
But there’s been a huge change recently in the furniture industry. An updated flammability standard (Technical Bulletin 117-2013) in California allows furniture makers to meet a flammability test without using flame retardants in the foam. This means you can now buy furniture without any flame retardants in the foam.
Gabe Wing directs safety and sustainability at Herman Miller in Holland, Michigan. He says they were already moving away from PBDEs for years before the California law changed. But now, he says, they can get rid of flame retardant chemicals altogether in the foam of their seating products.
“We’ve been able to work with our suppliers to pull it out of our foam products, and we’re in process and we expect to have that done within the next couple weeks,” says Wing.
He says the change in TB 117 is a step in the right direction.
"If there's a way we can work towards some type of national standard that clears this up for manufacturers and keeps people safe without using these harmful flame retardants, that's the position we want to be in as a company," says Wing.
An entire industry shifts
These changes are happening in factories across the country.
Andy Counts is the CEO of the American Home Furnishings Alliance. He says the new California law does not prohibit the use of flame retardants, but he says he’s not aware of any furniture companies that are still using them in foam.
“As long as you’re using smolder-approved fabric, or a smolder-proof barrier underneath the fabric to keep any flame assault from getting down into the foam, you’re going to have a safe product, and that’s what that standard focuses on, and no flame retardants are required to do that,” he says.
But you still have to do your homework
Retailers are still selling off older inventory. So when you go to the store, you’ve got to look at the label that’s under the cushions. If it says it meets TB 117, it probably has flame retardants in it.
If the label says TB 117-2013, then the furniture meets the new standard. And you’ll see a checkbox on that label. It’ll say whether or not there are flame retardants in the chair or couch.
Arlene Blum says we're in the messy transition period right now.
"All my friends say, 'when can I buy that new couch?' And I say my answer continues to be: probably wait a few more months. But I really think we're getting there. Most furniture looks like it will not contain added flame retardants in the next few months," she says.
Mattresses are not subject to TB 117
Mattresses are another animal altogether.
Ryan Trainer is president of the International Sleep Products Association. He says the mattress industry has to meet more stringent federal standards. Trainer says they meet those standards by using a fabric barrier, like cotton that’s treated with boric acid, but he says they do not use flame retardants in the foam.
"Adding fire retardants to foam adds cost and also tends to reduce the comfort value of the product," says Trainer. "We don’t need them, we don’t want them and they would degrade the comfort of our products."
One caveat: bassinet and baby play yard mattresses were subject to TB 117 in the past, so those baby products that contain polyurethane foam are likely to contain flame retardants.
The FAQs from the Green Science Policy Institute say this about baby products:
Baby mattresses with a TB117 label are likely to contain flame retardant chemicals and should be avoided. Mattresses produced after January 1, 2014 without a TB117 label are less likely to contain the chemicals, but it is prudent to verify with the retailer to make sure. A report on crib/ infant mattresses from Clean & Healthy New York provides information on some manufacturers.
What do we do with our old furniture?
This is a tricky one.
Arlene Blum says there's not a great solution yet.
"That is a really tough question, because you really don't want them in landfills, if possible. You don't want them in your home and you really don't want to pass them on to the Goodwill in low-income communities," she says.
She says one answer is to swap out the foam in your couch with new foam that doesn't have flame retardants in it. You can check out the Safer Sofa Foam Exchange site to get some guidance on how to do this at a foam/upholstery shop.
Why have these chemicals remained in household products for so long?
The research showing potential harm has been around for a long time, but the chemical industry had products to sell. A Chicago Tribune investigation uncovered how the industry kept its critics at bay and kept the market open for its products:
From their 2012 report:
The industry has twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry-funded reports as rigorous science.
As a result, the chemical industry successfully distorted the basic knowledge about toxic chemicals that are used in consumer products and linked to serious health problems, including cancer, developmental problems, neurological deficits and impaired fertility.
You can learn about PBDE's from our 2010 five part series.