New Study Reveals Widespread and Copious Use of Toxic Flame Retardants

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A study published this week in the Environmental Science & Technology journal, "Novel and High Volume Use Flame Retardants in US Couches Reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE Phase Out," reveals that 85% of couches purchased in the United States between 1985 and 2010 contain chemical flame retardants. The most prevalent include polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), tris (1-3-dichloroisopropyl) phosphate (TDCPP), and the newer Firemaster 550 (FM 550) mixture, as well as tris (4-butylphenyl) phosphate (TBPP), which according to the study has not been reported to be used as a flame retardant until now.

Chemicals Used as Flame Retardants

ChemicalsThe PBDE mixture PentaBDE was phased out of use as a flame retardant in 2005. Research linked it to developmental and neurological problems in children. Because a couch is a long-term purchase, many couches currently in homes still contain Penta.

TDCPP, or tris, is a suspected human carcinogen. Manufacturers voluntarily removed it from children's pajamas more than thirty years ago. But according to this and other recent studies, it is now the most common flame retardant used in furniture.

Firemaster 550 was touted as a problem-free alternative to Penta, but a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune this summer documented growing concerns over its health effects and environmental persistence.

Hazards to Human Health, Ineffective Fire Protection

Burning chairStudies show that these toxic flame retardant chemicals don't stay in couches' upholstery foam but migrate into household dust. Humans and pets ingest this dust and it accumulates in their bodies.

In the United States, where a California furniture flammability standard called Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) has led to higher than average use of chemical flame retardants industry-wide because the state is such a large market, concentration of Penta in human serum and breast milk is higher than in other countries, according to a 2008 CDC study (Figure 2).

Even worse, use of flame retardants in upholstery foam meeting TB117 standards doesn't actually increase fire safety, according to a test commissioned by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Changing an Industry of Injury

Updating TB117 to increase fire safety without the use of these toxic flame retardant chemicals would be likely to reduce their use across the country, just as California's 1986 voter initiative the "Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act" has led to reformulation of numerous consumer products to eliminate toxic chemicals.

The state of California is currently in the process of an update, according to the Green Science Policy Institute (GSPI). GSPI's founder and executive director, University of California at Berkeley chemist Arlene Blum, is a co-author of the study. The organization is asking those concerned about the use of these chemicals to write letters to the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation and sign a petition to Governor Jerry Brown.

While changes are needed to the California standard, federal law regulating chemicals also needs an overhaul. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is woefully inadequate to protect consumers from toxic chemicals like these flame retardants. Of the 80,000 chemicals on the market in this country, the EPA requires testing for only about 200 because it only requires testing for newly introduced chemicals, not those "grandfathered in." Blum told the Center for Media and Democracy, "Although EPA has found dangerous flame retardant chemicals at high levels in consumer products, under TSCA they lack the authority to protect our health."

From 2005 to 2012, the chemical industry has given $39 million to candidates for federal office and spent $333 million on lobbying at the federal level in its successful campaign to prevent Congress from updating TSCA, according to an October report by Common Cause.

In response, GSPI and many other chemical safety advocates support the Safe Chemicals Act of 2012, which would bring TSCA up to date and address many of its shortcomings. Blum notes, "The continued replacement of one toxic flame retardant with another is a vivid example of why we need the Safe Chemicals Act." Although the bill is unlikely to move forward this year, the bill will almost certainly be reintroduced in 2013.

When buying new furniture, Blum recommends items with polyester, down, wool or cotton fillings, which are unlikely to contain flame retardants.