All Frothy Over Flame-Retardants in Foam

I’ve been cornered.

Insert loud howling sound here. Allen Ginsberg, bless his brilliant soul, didn’t even BEGIN to know what a teed off work-from-home mom sounds like when she can’t get a simple answer to her damn question.

When the hideous, albeit allegedly flame retardant-free, foam, arrived for my new “adult-living” fireplace edges, I was struck by its clear resemblance to the foam we already have on the glass corners of the dining table. Further investigation revealed that I had been — gasp! shocker! — wrong in my frantic 2 a.m. googling of ebay for alternatives, and that it was in fact likely to be polyurethane, not, as I had thought, polyethylene. Those polys will get you every time. “P. U.,” thought I.

So it’s stayed in the bag, while I’ve been busily emailing back and forth with a mysterious supplier in Hong Kong (whose handle is “howtorich” [off Americans like me]). I’ll note, first, that while the supplier is in Hong Kong, the package actually arrived with a postal address from the hub of monstrous, environmentally-destructive manufacturing in China, Shenzhen, the first “Special Economic Zone.” I’ll just let the emails speak for themselves:

Dear howtorich2003,

What kind of material is this made of please? I.e., what kind of foam or plastic? Polyurethane or polyethylene? Etc.


Dear Laura,

It is Polyurethane Foam. Regards – howtorich2003

Here, I cleverly tried to trick them into the “wrong” answer — a technique learned from my hubby, whose extreme allergy to seafood means that we have to ask restaurants whether they serve it. Suggesting that we actually want seafood tends to lead to more honest answers, but here it just confused things:

Dear howtorich2003,
Does it contain flame retardants? (It’s for a hearth.)
– Laura

Dear Laura,
If you need to us our edge protector near fire or high temperature item, we DO NOT suggested you purchase it. Since it is a soft Polyurethane Foam cushion, if it meet high temperature, maybe it will deform or melt. Hope you can understand. – howtorich2003

Dear howtorich2003,
Thanks for your answer. We do not use the fireplace — but I am worried about chemicals. Does the foam have chemical flame retardants in it — like PBDEs, TDCPP (chlorinated tris) or Firemaster 500? Thanks! – Laura

Dear Laura,
Our edge cushion is safe for using. It will not have bad chemical that affect health. But please don’t allow baby to eat the cushion, since even though it is safe for using. But it cannot be eat. Hope you can understand. If you have further queries, please contact us again. We will try our best to solve it. Regards – howtorich2003

Dear howtorich2003,

Thanks for your reply, but you did not answer my question. Does the polyurethane foam you use include flame retardant chemicals? Thanks, Laura

Dear Laura, I will contact my factory for the detailed of the chemical used in the edge protector. Can you give us some time for checking? We look forward to your reply. Regards – howtorich2003

Dear howtorich2003,

Yes, please check. Thank you. — Laura

Dear Laura, OK. Please wait a while. Regards – howtorich2003

Ok, so friends, you tell me. Cry or laugh? I keep cycling between the two, but I’ll take your votes.

The better ones sold by Rhoost, which were mentioned in the comments from a wonderful reader, are on back-order. If anyone knows of another source, please let me know! Maybe I’ll just duct tape some padding on the corners and along the edge, if I can rig it so that little fingers can’t just pry it off.

In the meantime, the foam lives inside its plastic bag, and my living room stays better suited for a 2-year-old.

I’ll just share the two clear insights I gleaned from this whole process by shamelessly name-dropping celebrities:

Lesson numero uno: Do NOT murmur “aha” and “gotcha” to yourself in a manner eerily similar to John Hodgman at 2 a.m. while purchasing household items on Ebay from a buyer in Hong Kong named “howtorich;”

And number two: DO celebrate when Jessica Alba, movie super-heroine and real-life Toxic Avenger who fights for chemical reform, retweets your post about hurtling an owl pillow through a Target, and your blog traffic hits near-respectable levels. In my view, this one RT means that Jessica and I are Internet besties, and I’m sure she concurs.


Update:  I ordered the corners from Rhoost for the table and hearth. They are a thick plastic and would work just fine if the corner had an underbelly — sadly, both my particular table, which is an artisan affair, and the hearth, do not have a lip, so the tension mechanism can’t be used. I tried using double-sided tape on just the top part of the protector, but they get knocked off all the time, and the tape does not adhere well to the plastic. It appears I’ll have to send them back.

Update #2: My genius engineer hubs figured out that if we took the strappy things off the Rhoost corners, they would fit under the large glass topper for our dining room table, thereby protecting errant children from the sharp edges. See how that works?


So we’re all better on the table, though still without a good solution for the hearth corners. If you have other ideas, I’m all ears!

10 thoughts on “All Frothy Over Flame-Retardants in Foam

  1. I’m adding a comment and question I got via email from a reader:

    Hi Laura,

    First off, thanks for all of your hard work! I love you blog. It is comforting to know that I am not alone, even though it feels that way sometimes, in battling the toxins in my family’s life.

    I have a couple of questions for you. First, I have read in a few of your blog posts that you have a sensitivity to wool. I was wondering what you have learned about your sensitivity to wool and if you have any information that you could share? I also discovered about a year ago that I have a sensitivity to wool. I never noticed this before, so I’m not sure if it just developed or it was something I have had. I ordered my husband and I wool pillows for a safer alternative, and within 3 months or so I had an eczema rash on my face and neck. It took me awhile to figure out what was causing it, but I eventually realized it was my pillow, unfortunately. The weird thing is I had never had a problem with wool before, and this time it was so bad that even my husband had to replace his pillow in order for the rash to clear up. I did not have direct contact with his pillow, but just being close to it made the rash worse. My daughter also has a wool pillow and mattress topper on her bed, and just laying on it for short periods of time when putting her to bed irritated me. It took months for the eczema to go away completely. Now that I know the cause I have not have any more problems.

    The hard part is that wool is one of the very limited options available when trying to pick a nontoxic alternative for many things. I would like to be able to choose wool filling for some things (homemade chair pads or even a couch), but I am nervous to waste a lot of money on something when I end up with another reaction. Just wondering if you have noticed that your sensitivity is to only certain types of wool, or a certain amount of contact etc?

    Second, I went to buy a new iron board cover and realized that all of the covers sold that I have seen contain flame retardant chemicals. I have looked around on the nontoxic websites I frequent, but don’t see an alternatives anywhere. Short of making my own, do you know of any other options?

    Thanks so much for reading this! Meg

    Dear Meg:

    Hi Meg,

    Thanks so much for writing!

    In terms of wool, my allergy is to the dander in less processed wool, though I would certainly be careful about it in pillows, scarves or other items that sit right on the skin (I’m also allergic to mohair, and angora, for example). Eczema is awful! Maya has it too. It could be that you are also allergic to some less processed wool, or that the chemicals used in making those items caused a response. Have you had a test by an allergy doc?

    Yes, I basically don’t do ironing because the board covers are all like that. (My husband does his shirts, and I keep it away from Maya. With the heat and steam and all, I’m sure it’s awful.) I have not found an alternative, sorry. Except, I suppose, paying a green dry cleaning place to steam the clothes, but that gets pricey fast!

    May be a good idea for someone on Etsy to do!


    Her reply:


    Thanks for your response! Feel free to share these emails on your blog.

    Maybe that’s what my issue is with wool as well, less processed or the chemicals used in processing. No, I haven’t seen an allergist for this. I am fine on a daily basis now that I know the source and avoid wool as much as possible. I do still lay on my daughter’s bed, but because I don’t have direct contact with the wool like I did on my pillow, and because the exposure is infrequent, I haven’t had any problems. I have found that my organic cotton and kapok pillows are great and have given me no reaction. I think I will have my rocking chair pads made from those materials just to be safe. If I get to the point of including wool in a more expensive item, like a couch, I will have to do some sort of skin test beforehand.

    That is very frustrating about the iron covers. The simplest things, like buying a new iron cover, always turn into such a project due to the amount of harmful chemicals used nowadays. I guess I will add having a homemade iron cover to my list of things to get made instead of buying now. Just another reason to learn how to sew myself!!

    Thanks for getting back to me!

    Take care,

  2. Hi Laura, I so enjoy reading your blog and am constantly impressed with your research and tenacity! I’m on a (hard, but so-far successful) campaign to rid my home of flame retardants. I recently came across a surprising (potential) source, and I’m wondering if you can help me figure out more. My toddlers (twins) were given hand puppets over the holidays from a dear friend of mine. The kids adore the puppets and I did too until I noticed they were made from polyurethane foam! I’ve thrown them in a garbage bag and stowed them into my closet until I find out more. I want them to be non-toxic! I’ve called the company (FolkManis), which produces its puppets in China (probably not good news, right?). I was told that they comply with European standards (whatever those are) and was sent a (meaningless) ASTM report. I live in California (and they’re based in CA) so I assume all foam here is treated. My question: there’s no mention of complying with flammability standards on the label, but is there any reason to think this PU foam might not be treated with FRs? I don’t love the idea of the foam, but I’m willing to keep the puppets if they haven’t been treated. How do I find out more???? I would so appreciate any suggestions! Thanks!

    • Good question! So, my understanding from other commenters is that most foam from China is probably, though not certainly, treated. Basically, unless the company will research the issue for you and give you a definite answer on the FRs issue, there would be no way for you to know. It sounds like you’ve already asked them to no avail. The only other idea I would have is to call back and hound them a bit to ask their China supplier whether FRs are used. I’ve never gotten an answer, btw, from my Hong Kong fellow on the question, despite multiple additional prompts. The good news is that there are a lot of US-made puppets that you can find at better toy stores that are kind of amazing, if expensive. Sorry I can’t be more helpful! All best, Laura

    • Hi, I think cork is a brilliant solution! You could buy a thicker piece and just extend it over the corner to make a new “lip” with double-sided (strong) tape — without even worrying about connecting two pieces. In terms of linseed oil, that is my oil of choice for wood projects where beeswax won’t do. It is basically, flax, as you say. Some sites I’ve found says that it has mild estrogenic properties, but that it’s natural form is not harmful. At our house, we just decided Maya was stable enough and got rid of the fence, so if you wait long enough…
      All best, Laura

  3. Pingback: Retarding Flame Retardants | On a Quasi-Related Note

  4. Hi Laura,
    If you are not going to use the foam you purchased, please send us a piece and we’ll test it for presence of flame retardants. We are creating a database of lab tested products.

    We are and our goal is to offer the public affordable laboratory testing for all types of material; water, air, products, food etc. I think you’ll find that most labs are focused on commercial business. We recognized the need for non-scientists and launched our website to fill this gap in services.

    From what I’ve researched, it will be very difficult to find non-fire retardant foam, especially sourced from China.

    Sean Wallace
    MyChemistry, Inc.

    • Hi Sean, What a great concept for a company! Agreed that consumers need an independent source for information on many chemicals. I will not need all of the foam, nor would I necessarily trust the answer I get. How much foam do you need to conduct a meaningful test? It’s about an inch wide on each side and 1/2 inch thick or so. All best,

  5. I vote for laugh over cry, and I offer this small consolation: pretty soon you’ll forget that you were ever worried about your baby bonking her head on the fireplace because she’ll be so grown up. I have a wood stove (unused) that I’ve been meaning to babyproof for 6 years but, just like that, problem outgrown! 🙂 Also, I’ve been thinking fondly of you tonight as I try to purchase a g.d. toaster oven without a nonstick interior (I didn’t even know that was a thing until we unpacked the first one we bought). Sheesh. (Waring Pro, FYI, is the one brand that supposedly doesn’t coat its interiors with Teflon or Teflon-like crud.)

    • Hi Emmy! Thanks so much for your sensible vote. Yes, it’s like parenting is that famous joke about the weather — don’t like this stage? Wait 15 minutes. Or really, if you stall long enough, you may never need to deal! Thanks for the tip on the toaster — I’ll add a mention in the comments to the Teflon post I did as well! All best, Laura

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