Good Parenting for the Chemical Industry

This is cross-posted from the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families blog here. Much thanks to the wonderful folks there for publishing it!

Here’s a basic truth every Mom knows: it’s far easier to avoid making a mess than to clean it up after the fact. And here’s another fundamental rule we all tell our kids: do not lie.

Sadly, in the case of chemical flame retardants, both of these rules for responsible behavior have gone by the wayside. As the powerful Chicago Tribune series, Playing with Fire, showed last spring, the chemical industry created “Citizens for Fire Safety,” a front group which lied to lawmakers in California about the need for chemical flame retardants in furniture. Yet research shows that there is no proven safety benefit from using flame retardants.

As it turned out from the painstaking investigation by Tribune reporters, the group’s main “safety” representative, Dr. David Heimbach, actually invented details about children who had burned to death in tragic circumstances, twisting the terrible, heart-breaking stories to serve the lobbying goals of the three chemical company backers for the astroturf group. This went beyond the typical obfuscation in industry lobbying – it was fraud on the legislature.

Here’s something interesting: unlike the federal government, the state of California does not have strong laws to penalize people who lie to government officials. In contrast, if you lie to a federal official, you can go to jail or pay a hefty fine. When I scoured documents submitted to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission when it was considering its rule on flame retardants, I found nary a story about burned babies. My own conclusion: they chose to lie when they thought they could get away with it.

So that’s the whopper. What about the mess? A new study out just yesterday shows that a stunning 85 percent of sofas contain harmful flame retardant chemicals, and that of couches sold over the past seven years, nearly all – 94 percent – have them. Researchers surveyed the foam in 102 sofas from all over the country through aptly named “couch biopsies,” analyzing the chemicals. The industry’s veil of silence and repeated refusal to share with researchers what’s in their sofas makes this painstaking approach necessary.

The study also found that pounds of chemicals are used, as much as 11 percent of the overall foam. This confirms what we all thought, but is still outrageous when you consider that my family, and perhaps yours, spends a small fortune on organic foods to eliminate parts-per-million of pesticide residues.

Chemicals being used as flame retardants are linked to health harms, including lowered fertility and IQ and cancer-causing impacts. We also know that these substances break down over time, becoming part of household dust. Once they are in the dust, we all breathe them in. Toddlers and young children, who spend a ton of time on the floor and who put everything, including their hands, into their mouths, have three times more of these dangerous chemicals in their blood than do adults. A recent study also found a correlation between a pregnant woman’s level of one chemical and negative health outcomes in the child at age 7, linking it to decreased IQ, fine motor coordination, and an ability to focus attention.

The real up-shot of this study is that we now have a huge mess on our hands. There are the human costs: most American homes are now polluted with pounds of harmful chemicals, and we will have to measure, as we did with lead pollution, the value of our children’s lost IQ points, likely for several generations. And then there are the ecological costs, which are also staggering.

Furniture sales (though not just sofas and upholstered chairs) totaled about $8 billion per month in 2012. Consider the resources involved, the packaging and shipping of such large items, and the pride everyone feels in refurnishing their home. And now think about the landfills as many people replace these items with safer sofas and chairs. This foam will break down for years, getting into our environment and bloodstream of humans and animals.

My blog lists some options for buying sofas without flame retardants in them, and my traffic was through the roof yesterday. The most common search term was “sofa without flame retardants.” (The amazing Green Science Policy Institute also has a nice list on their front page.)

Given that the rule in California was suspended by order of the Governor, companies should now realize the significant opportunity to sell couches without these chemicals in them to a newly awakened American consumer. And they should consider that at least one of these chemicals – chlorinated tris, or TDCPP – now requires a label as a probable carcinogen under a separate California disclosure law. The new study found that tris is the substance most commonly used in furniture after 2005, but I doubt consumers will be happy to buy furniture with cancer tags sticking out of them.

And what about a more radical idea: requiring furniture makers to take back and replace it with furniture without chemical flame retardants? If the government made them collect and remediate the chemicals, we would get far less of it dumped into the environment. And it would only be fair: consumers should not have to pay to replace new furniture, just so they – and their children – are not poisoned in their living rooms. Instead, those that profited should pay for the clean-up, just as we do with tire recycling programs or Superfund sites.

Of course, that’s just a fix for sofas. We’ll see this story about greed, lies and profits on chemicals over and over again, unless we do something fundamental to require the industry to put people first. The Safe Chemicals Act, which got a hearing in a key Senate committee last spring, is the answer, because it would set up a system for approval of chemicals that requires real consideration of the impacts they may have on health, including the health of vulnerable groups like children.

Here’s how to ask the Senate to act. You can think of the bill as the good parent that the chemical industry obviously needs, to teach them the basics of how human beings should act.

New Study Released Today Confirms: 85 Percent of Couches Contain Toxic Chemicals

A new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Environment Science and Technology, was just published today by Heather Stapleton. Its results confirm what she has been saying about the ubiquity and harm from flame retardants in sofas, and gives more credence to my incessant complaints, but that doesn’t really make me happy. At all.

A good number of foam samples — 102 — were gathered from around the U.S. and tested for chemicals added as flame retardants. In sum, the study demonstrates that:

  • 85% of the couches tested had toxic or untested chemicals in the foam.
  • The newer the couch, the more the toxic flame retardants were used.
  • Flame retardants use by furniture manufacturers across the country is increasing. Of couches purchased in the last 7 years, 94% contain toxic chemicals added as flame retardants.
  • In samples purchased prior to 2005, PBDEs were the most common flame retardants detected (39%), followed by tris (or TDCPP; 24%), which is a suspected human carcinogen.
  • In samples purchased in 2005 or later, the most common flame retardants detected were tris (TDCPP; 52%) and components associated with the Firemaster550 (FM 550) mixture (18%).
  • Since the 2005 phase-out of PentaBDE, the use of tris (TDCPP) increased significantly. (Note: this means that my experience of buying an Ikea couch because there were no PBDEs in it, only to find that it contained tris, is more common than anyone knew…)
  • Flame retardants were found at levels of up to 11%, or 110,000 parts per million, by weight of the foam. (Translation: this stuff is measured in pounds, as the Chicago Tribune stories said.)
  • Almost all couches (98%) with the TB 117 label (indicating they comply with rules for flame retardants in California) contained the chemicals.
  • Recent studies show toddlers have three times the level of their moms.
  • Previous studies show that children of color have levels higher than the general population. (So depressing!)
  • These chemicals continuously migrate from products, to house dust, to children and pets.
  • There are no data that show any fire safety benefit from using the flame retardants to meet the California flammability standard. (Here’s a link to a very clear and helpful post from a Ph.D. student in toxicology who walks carefully through all the evidence on this point.)

My pal Lindsay Dahl over at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families has already written a great post on the study. As she says, the real solution to this problem is to address the elephant-sized toxic couch in the room: for Congress to get off its duff and enact comprehensive chemical reform, by passing the Safe Chemicals Act.

The bill that would establish a system for ensuring chemicals are safe before they enter the market, and therefore our living rooms. The bill had its first historic vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works committee this past summer, has 29 Senate co-sponsors, and awaiting a Senate floor vote. Take action here, and let the Senate know the time for action is now. Not tomorrow. Now.

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New to the issue or the blog and want to know more? Start in this happy place, and all the other links are at the bottom.

Sofa Saga, Part 5: A Happy Place to Sit

Everyone, exhale. Our (cleaner, greener) sofa has finally arrived!

I was very concerned that after all these months of anticipation, it would not measure up. But it is well-made, truly comfortable, roomy and fits my living room like it was made for it. Which it basically was.

Going couch-less was not easy. With this dark period now behind us, we can breathe a sigh of relief, fuss a bit over the cushions, and celebrate the close of our odd social pariah status. No longer will we have to burden casual visitors with an alarming earful concerning how and why I put my toxic Ikea sofa out on the curb, just to address the paucity of seating options.

We ended up with a couch from Robert Craymer, who had great designs and gave us a price break even before this blog started sending traffic his way, as I explain here. It was a long wait, although some of the delay was my responsibility as well, as I contemplated the materials, color, etc. Robert’s recently down-sized his operation and closed his storefront, and, as he told me, he’s happy to do orders, but they will take some time to fill.

It was finished in a simple, child-friendly brown, pre-washed twill. For filler, I did not go with latex, instead opting for the polyurethane foam with no flame retardants in it. (But others should at least review the excellent and detailed exchange in the comments to this post about the latex option, and the eco-issues with polyurethane foams.)

Here’s a picture with the pillows that I had on hand, which look great mixed with the four brown ones that came with the couch:

Happy thanksgiving! This year, we’ll be thankful for furniture that doesn’t add flame retardants to our house, and is lovely to sit on as well.

Now, about those chairs…

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If you’re new to the “Sofa Saga,” or the issue of flame retardants, these other posts may be of interest to you:

And here’s sobering coverage of a study released Nov. 15, 2012, linking maternal-fetal levels of PBDEs, a particular and ubiquitous flame retardant found in 97 percent of the study subjects, to delayed development in the child at age 7.

There’s more! Coming attractions include a guest post by Ken Fonville, of Eco-Select Furniture, with an update on the California process from his perspective.

Full disclosure: I have not been paid any commission whatsoever by either company for this review or any other post, but Robert did rather casually mention that he might send along some additional pieces given the referrals he’s getting from the blog mentions. Lucky me!

More Misadventures with Flame Retardants: So.Much.Fun.

Misadventure Number 1:

Sometimes, it appears, moms get stuck between an owl pillow and a hard place. Or at least that’s what happened to me on an ill-fated trip to Target last week.

During a (rare and dreaded) shopping adventure in which I was ISO a dress-up mirror for her bedroom, Maya developed a fondness for an admittedly adorable owl pillow perkily perched at the edge of a shelf in the children’s crapola aisle.

It was kinda’ cute, fairly cheap, and not branded by Disney or any other marketing juggernaut, so I was actually contemplating letting her keep the thing when I noticed its tag. On the one hand, it said “100% polyester” and I recalled that Heather Stapleton had said that polyester is rarely treated with chemical flame retardants. On further examination, however, I noticed that its tag also read “This product complies with TB117,” indicating that it meets the California flame retardant standard that requires harmful chemicals to be put into things like my old couch. Cue record scratch here.

Despite all my research on the evils of flame retardants, I had no earthly idea whether this confusion of labels meant that it complied with the California law because its icky polyester already complies without any need for chemicals, or whether this particular pillow had also been doused in IQ-lowering carcinogens. I was pondering the possibilities when I looked over to see that Maya was enthusiastically putting the pillow in her mouth, which is nasty for a whole host of parenting-fail-type reasons.

When my attempts to wrestle the pillow out of her hands were met with embarrassingly loud wails of protest, I conceded that I should at least try to figure out an answer on the whole toxics dealie. First, I asked a sales associate, who gave me a look like I was fresh from an asylum for helicopter moms and suggested I call the main Target consumer help number.

I did just that, and their associate (allegedly named “Bob,” who was obviously an underpaid hourly employee at a call center not here in the U.S.) in turn referred me, after the several explanations I was able to deliver over Maya’s screaming, to Circo, the manufacturer of said owl pillow, even though there is no number for Circo anywhere, given that it’s just a Target brand.

Since I was Not About to Call Anyone Else About This Stupid Pillow anyway, at this point, I dunno how, the pillow got thrown into the air into the middle of the children’s clothing department, where it would do no one any harm. I told Maya that the owl was nocturnal, and had flown to its nest for “night-night.” After a few concluding sobs, that seemed to end the question and the ensuing crisis, with both of us a just little less wise for the wear.

Misadventure Number 2:

I was always one of those snobs who could not believe that kids and their stuff could fully occupy my friends’ living rooms, leaving no trace of adult life. Like all of my pre-actual-parenting judgments, however, this one bit the dust as soon as I was the one with a child. It’s just so much more convenient to have them in earshot and right off the kitchen, so that you might hear if they are choking on something with a few seconds to spare.

Nonetheless, now that M is less likely to sample the flavors of choking-sized objects, and there is the impending arrival of my new, less-chemical couch, I hatched a tentative plan to Take Back my living room. This involves, by aesthetic necessity, selling the insta-Romper Room primary-color plastic fence around the raised marble edges of the fireplace, and replacing it with some kind of cushion to protect foreheads and the like from its sharp corners.

(Although the fence is plastic, I bought the thing in Maya’s early crawling days, when a rounded-edge, musical contraption looked like a decent option. She didn’t chew on it (much), and the tunes do allow us to experience her awesome dance moves. It’s since dawned on me that there are other gates made of metal or wood to do this job (like this one, which I have not tried). Now that I’m further down my own personal anti-plastics highway, I might have used those instead.)

I recalled the One Step Ahead catalog had some hearth options for child-proofing, including strips for $30 and a large mat for $130. Not cheap, and then I saw the following:

Made of flame resistant, FDA-approved non-toxic dense foam with self-adhesive hook ‘n loop.

As we know, putting “non-toxic” and “flame resistant” in the same sentence is a form of ultimately meaningless — albeit tragically entertaining — noise, much like a Vice Presidential debate.

But actually, it’s not as funny. This picture of a large hearth pad made of flame retardant polyurethane foam with a child playing in front of it literally makes me want to choke. Well-intentioned parents who want to protect their child from both fire and physical injury will buy this hundred-smackerooni-plus pad, thinking that they are doing the best for their family, and will instead be bringing in yet another source of very exposed toxic chemicals into their home. Yeesh.

And I would guess, though this is just a guess, that the corner cushions on our glass-topped dining room table are also made of flame-retardant doused polyurethane (i.e., “PU”) foam, which is just great to have around at mealtimes, I’m sure.

In the living room, I was not about to give up the modest toxicity of our hard plastic fence to replace it with a new source of flame retardants to infect our household dust, so for a minute my reclaiming-adult-living project threatened to go off the rails entirely. Then I found this utterly sketchy product on Ebay of all places — corner cushions made of PE (polyethylene) straight from Hong Kong, for about $9 per package: THICK 2m Table Edge/Corne​r Cushion Softener Guard Protector Bumper Baby Safety.

No mention of flame retardants, though they do claim to be “non-toxic and environmentally friendly.” I’m not sure how that works, exactly. Not being born yesterday, I know this foam is not eco-friendly at all, but as it is a “needed” safety item, I held my nose and ordered it. I’m still awaiting its arrival, and will update the post when it gets here in all its ugly glory.

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The up-shot? All in all, it’s stunning to see how complete the infiltration of these chemical flame retardants is into our lives and the spaces occupied by our children. It’s truly upsetting to think of all the families who are likely not following this arcane battle over toxic flame retardants (i.e., much of sane America) and are bringing this stuff into their homes completely unaware of its risks for them and their children.

And, as with the pillow, the lack of real information on even the simplest product — a pillow, for pete’s sake — is both troubling and problematic. What’s in any of the stuff we buy, anyway, and how was it made? We don’t really begin to know, even if we think we know a few of the questions we should ask.

Must Read: Today’s Great New York Times Story on Toxic Sofas

Red sofa

Red sofa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been under the weather with viral bronchitis all week, but was cheered to see this long and wonderful article today in the New York Times featuring a personal heroine of mine, Arlene Blum.

Most shocking from the piece? This information from a new study on flame retardants in the blood of toddlers (the emphasis is mine):

Most disturbingly, a recent study of toddlers in the United States conducted by researchers at Duke University found flame retardants in the blood of every child they tested. The chemicals are associated with an assortment of health concerns, including antisocial behavior, impaired fertility, decreased birth weight, diabetes, memory loss, undescended testicles, lowered levels of male hormones and hyperthyroidism.

The article talks about the California rule on flame retardants, now under reconsideration in that state. It also notes the need for a federal bill that would better regulate chemical safety, like the Safe Chemicals Act that just got a hearing in the Senate. And it makes clear the problem that new chemicals remain under a shroud of secrecy, under rules that allow the chemical industry to deem them “proprietary” despite being in all of our living rooms:

Logic would suggest that any new chemical used in consumer products be demonstrably safer than a compound it replaces, particularly one taken off the market for reasons related to human health. But of the 84,000 industrial chemicals registered for use in the United States, only about 200 have been evaluated for human safety by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because industrial chemicals are presumed safe unless proved otherwise, under the 1976 federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

When evidence begins to mount that a chemical endangers human health, manufacturers tend to withdraw it from the market and replace it with something whose effects — and often its ingredients — are unknown. The makeup of the flame retardant Firemaster 550, for instance, is considered a proprietary trade secret. At a recent conference, Stapleton discussed a small, unpublished study in which she fed female rats low doses of Firemaster 550. The exposed mothers’ offspring gained more weight, demonstrated more anxiety, hit puberty earlier and had abnormal reproductive cycles when compared with unexposed offspring — all signs that the chemical disrupts the endocrine system.

The article also notes how difficult it is to find furniture without chemicals in it, which is certainly the case. In addition to the options I’ve laid out in prior posts, linked to below, I’ve recently found a few new cheaper possibilities:

  • First, I found a wonderful mid-century modern chair on Craigslist for a little more than $100 with the original mid-60s upholstery. Since these flame retardant chemicals generally entered furniture after 1975, it’s likely fine, though I didn’t have any testing done. Other wood-framed mid-century pieces, including sofas, could be fitted with custom-made cushions, which I’ve ordered from Etsy for some of our current furniture, or, if you’re crafty, even made by hand.
  • Futons are an option– according to a wonderful reader of this blog, SallyS, there are evidently a range of cushion options, including organic. Again, Craigslist may be an option for cheap solid wood frames.
  • Also on Craigslist, I scored a 20-year-old Italian-made leather chair for a very reasonable sum. Given its foreign make and age, I’m guessing, again, that this is likely ok. While I realize that very-old-and-foreign-made-and-still-desirable-for-my-sitting-room is likely a small category, I figured it was worth a mention…

If you’re hunting for more options, please check out the posts below as well as the incredibly helpful comments from resourceful readers for some greener manufacturers and other DIY ideas.

More resources on flame retardants and furniture:

Burning Questions: An FAQ on Flame Retardants in Furniture

A flame from a burning candle

Whenever I scan the search engine subjects through which people now stumble over my blog, it becomes clear that the major thing everyone wants to know is whether they have a toxic sofa in their house and what in the blazes they are supposed to do about it.

So below I have compiled an FAQ based upon the research I did, the amazing investigation by the Chicago Tribune, and what’s happened since. If there are other burning questions on your mind, please let me know!

Q1: Is my sofa or upholstered chair full of toxic flame retardants?

I’m so sorry to have to be the one to break it to you, but the answer is yes.

While that sinks in, you can peruse the only caveats:

1) Your furniture is so groovy it dates back to the early ’70s (pre-1975, to be precise);

2) You bought this furniture from a local custom furniture supplier who never sells furniture in California and you specifically asked that supplier about whether the foam they used has any kind of flame retardant in it; or

3) You paid a small fortune for the sofa and bought it from a certified “green” supplier with whom you discussed this very issue. At length. With specificity. And, very likely, paid extra for the privilege of toxic-free-ness.

If, on the other hand, your furniture came from any national manufacturer (including Crate & Barrel, West Elm, Ikea, Overstock or basically anyone else that would sell a stick of furniture in California, at least some of the time), it has some kind of chemical flame retardant in it.

A stupid California rule, Technical Bulletin 117, requires flame retardant properties in upholstered and many other consumer products that results in these chemicals being part of any upholstered furniture sold basically anywhere, given the sheer size of California’s economy and influence on the national market. (In addition, the federal government requires cars to meet fire resistance standards which drive companies to include these chemicals in car upholstery, which is a topic for another day.)

Sadly, there is a lot of greenwashing on this point. Sofas sold as “green” because they have some soy foam in them instead of all polyurethane foam, or because they have certified hardwoods, almost all still have chemical flame retardants in them.

Also, furniture can have a label like the “Certipur” label, or a sticker or label that says it is “PBDE-free” or some such, and likely still has chemical flame retardants in it. (For example, when I called Crate & Barrel, they told me that the sofa I had in mind was “PBDE-free” but upon further questioning and after some considerable hold time, revealed that it did have “chlorinated phosphates” in it as a chemical flame retardant. That is probably, but not certainly, “chlorinated tris,” or TDCPP, which is discussed below.)

Q2: What kind of toxic chemical flame retardants does my sofa have in it?

Ah, you want to know what harmful chemicals are in your house? Sorry, that’s proprietary.

Basically, the furniture manufacturers and foam suppliers have refused to give this information in any usable form even to scientific researchers. For years. This meant that even crack scientists like Heather Stapleton had to become detectives, asking people in their circles to literally cut small sections of sofa out of their couches and mail them to them to be tested. They called these “couch biopsies,” which is kind of cute given the carcinogenic properties of many of these chemicals.

That’s one way Stapleton figured out, for example, that although Ikea and other furniture companies had been publicly bragging about being free of PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, a particularly nasty and notorious type of flame retardant, that Ikea was using a type of chlorinated tris instead.

Chlorinated tris (one kind of these chemicals are also called TDCPP) made headlines back in the 1970s when it was actually banned from children’s pajamas after it showed up in children’s urine after only a few days wearing their chemical PJs and was shown to be a potent mutagen. Unfortunately, it was not banned for every use, and so furniture makers evidently thought it a brilliant turn to start sticking it into sofa cushions sometime around 2005, when PBDE’s fell under a public cloud of PR toxicity.

Now, there’s a new chemical fire sheriff in town, Firemaster 550, which researchers don’t know much about. And the chemical makers have also rumbled publicly about a chemical switcherooni with some other new kind chemical flame fixant, as reported by the Tribune series. In short, no one knows what, exactly, is in the millions of products in homes and on the market today, and the only way to really know for sure is to ask the company that sold you the sofa. And wait on hold. And insist on getting a specific answer.

If you do make a call about your furniture, please let me know what happened in the comments to this post, and I will track these and publish as complete a list as we can all come up with, working together.

Here’s one thought on what to ask: “Specifically what kind of chemical flame retardant is used on the fabric and/or foam of this furniture I own/am thinking of buying? I would like to know the name of the chemical in particular…. Yes, I’ll hold.”

Q3: What’s the harm of chemical flame retardants?

Here’s where, if my first-hand experience is any guide, the mind rebels. It’s really close to impossible to feel comfortable in mi casa ever again. Which is an outrageously unfair situation for all of us, for obvious reasons.

Basically, the harm from chemical flame retardants depends in part on what kind of chemical it is, of course. And since we mostly do not have that information, here’s what is reasonable to say:

1) Flame retardants suck. PBDEs, for example — the chemicals that are likely in any furniture produced before 2005 — are linked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “neurobehavioral” harms. As the EPA put it:

EPA is concerned that certain PBDE congeners are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment.

About the others, here’s Stapleton again:

TDCPP is a suspected carcinogen and other “Tris” chemicals are known carcinogens (e.g., TCEP).

Some of our research has shown that TDCPP is just as potent a neurotoxicant as the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos had its indoor permit withdrawn by the EPA due to concerns about neurotoxicity.

And FireMaster 550 contains chemicals that may also be neurotoxicants and endocrine disruptors…we’re trying to evaluate this now.

2) Flame retardants don’t help save us in fires. Thanks to testing by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, we now know that chemical flame retardants don’t do anything to make a fire safer, but make it more toxic and dangerous by causing the release of harmful fumes when an item burns.

As Stapleton explained:

They are suppose to slow down the rate at which the product burns, but some tests shows that this only slows down the rate by maybe 2-3 seconds. In addition, by having flame retardants in the foam, you generate more smoke, soot and carbon monoxide when they burn, which is a concern because many people die of smoke inhalation during a fire. So one might actually argue that the presence of these chemicals in foam containing furniture increases fire hazards!

3) Flame retardants don’t stay put, but instead get into our bodies.  In fact, as Stapleton found in tests of indoor air which have been sadly confirmed, chemical flame retardants get into household dust, into the air we breathe, and thereby into our bloodstream.

They pose a particular risk to young children (and to pets), who are in the house for long periods of time, playing on the ground, and put everything into their mouths. In fact, one shocking 2011 study found that Mexican-American children in California had PBDE levels that were 7 times higher than that of their age counterparts living in Mexico.

Here’s the EPA again:

PBDEs are not chemically bound to plastics, foam, fabrics, or other products in which they are used, making them more likely to leach out of these products.

Q3: Where else are chemical flame retardants in my house and life?

Turns out, these delightful chemicals tend to be wherever foam is found, and then some. They are in your car seat and child’s car seat, are used to treat electronics like televisions and computers, and are in some other types of products with foam like bedding, rugs, strollers and nursing pillows.

While California suspended the rules with regard to bedding in 2010 and some “juvenile products” in March 2011, these items still may contain chemical flame retardants as this stunning 2012 study found was true of 85 percent of baby products, including co-sleepers and nursing pillows. Older items almost certainly are laden with chemical ick, to put it scientifically.

Adding insult to injury, I also must tell you that polyurethane foam is not very cool, in and of itself, given that it’s made with toluene and other suspect chemicals, as you can read about from informed sources in the comments here that recommend latex instead.

Q4: What can I do about this, now that the flame-retardant foam is no longer pulled over my eyes?

First, if you are not in the market for new furniture given these uncertain economic times, here are a few ideas:

  1. Open the windows and air out the room (and car) whenever you can;
  2. Wash your hands (and your child’s hands) frequently, and definitely before eating;
  3. Vacuum more often, using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and move furniture to get the dust underneath;
  4. If upholstery is damaged or leaking, fix it promptly and re-establish a seal (use duct tape if you need to);
  5. Minimize polyurethane foam products (polyester foam is better, according to Stapleton);
  6. Don’t let children spend time unnecessarily in car seats (or in strollers, play pens or pack-and-plays with foam padding — look for an Oeko Tex certification on fabrics);
  7. As some innovative commenters have suggested, think about purchasing or making a sofa cover in a tightly-woven or allergenic fabric and use an upholstery stapler and thick fabric on the underbelly of the furniture (note: I have no proof whatsoever of whether this would work, but since dust is the medium here, it stands to reason that it might help).

Please note that no one really recommends re-upholstering items, as this will release far more dust from the furniture than merely keeping it around.

Second, from least invasive of your lifestyle to most, here are some thoughts about furniture options:

  1. Avoid buying products when you can that are labeled “flame retardant” or “Meets California Technical Bulletin 117″ or “Complies with TB 117″ or some such nonsense;
  2. Look for furniture from before 1975 or so (if you can stand the dust and dust mites!);
  3. Look for non-upholstered options when feasible, i.e. dining room chairs, or even wooden recliners with pillows you could design or have made to fit (as I did here through a seamstress on Etsy);
  4. Avoid adding suspect chemicals to new furniture by turning down optional stain-guard treatments;
  5. Make your own sofa using a daybed, as in the inventive comments to this post from SallyS, or use an organic mattress to build a new sofa, as outlined here;
  6. Check out the possible suppliers for flame-retardant free sofas in Sofa Saga Part Two and Part Four (as well as some additional suggestions and links in the comments from helpful readers).

Third, if you’re generally concerned about chemicals and furniture, you might also pause to consider the type of wood products you’re bringing into your home.

Furniture is just not made with the quality and care that it used to be, and even fairly expensive furniture, as well as the cheaper stuff, has plywood or medium-density fiberboard (MDF) in parts of it (like drawer bottoms and backs).

These pressed wood products off-gas for the life of the product, and can contain formaldehyde as well as toxic glues and solvents. If you can find solid wood items, that’s certainly best. I’ve found that Craigslist, Ebay, yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores and antiques stores are all good potential sources for these, and that even mainstream stores carry some items that are solid wood.

Fourth and last, the most important thing we all can do is to weigh in as the state of California considers where to go now on its inane flame retardant rule. Governor Edmund Brown has just asked state regulators to rewrite the standard following public pressure to change it. But make no mistake: getting a better rule will require a battle royale with the chemical industry, and its considerable bag of tricks.

There will be a public comment period, which I promise to monitor, so that we can all weigh in to say exactly how ticked off we are about this standard, which has introduced chemical poison into every home in America, and into the bodies of our children. Please stay tuned for that!

And if you do pick up the phone or email a furniture company about your own furniture, please do let us know what they say, so that everyone can learn from your valuable time on hold…

More resources on flame retardants and furniture:

California Governor Brown Orders State to Change Flame Retardant Rule

Clariant International Ltd: Clariant features ...

 

Breaking news! And great news! An obscure law in California is the only reason that there are harmful chemical flame retardants in furniture, and as of today, they will start a process to change that rule. Now we’ll just have to make sure that the state’s rule change gets rid of harmful — and potentially harmful — chemicals.

Here’s the statement from Gov. Edmund Brown in full:

6-18-2012

SACRAMENTO – In an effort to protect public safety by reducing the use of toxic flame retardants, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today directed state agencies to revise flammability standards for upholstered furniture sold in the state.

Governor Brown has asked the Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to review the state’s four-decade-old flammability standards and recommend changes to reduce toxic flame retardants while continuing to ensure fire safety.

“Toxic flame retardants are found in everything from high chairs to couches and a growing body of evidence suggests that these chemicals harm human health and the environment,” said Governor Brown. “We must find better ways to meet fire safety standards by reducing and eliminating—wherever possible—dangerous chemicals.”

Studies show that humans are at risk from exposure to toxic chemicals used as flame retardants in upholstered furniture. A 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group found that toddlers often have three times the level of flame retardant chemicals in their bodies as their parents, and California children have some of the highest levels of toxic flame retardants in their bodies.

A peer-reviewed study by scientists at Cal/EPA found that California women have much higher levels of toxic flame retardants in their breast tissue than women in other states and countries. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found statistically significant associations between flame retardant levels in the blood of California women and reduced fertility. The researchers believe this link may result from alterations in thyroid hormone levels after exposure to the chemicals.

Numerous studies demonstrate that firefighters have significantly elevated rates of cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and brain cancer. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine concluded that firefighters have a significantly elevated risk of cancer that may be attributed to toxic chemicals they inhale, including flame retardants.

The guidelines in place now—Technical Bulletin 117 for flammability standards—will be updated to reflect modern manufacturing methods that can lower the use of harmful chemicals.

The process to change these regulations will include workshops and the opportunity for public comment as well as administrative review.

Sign the Petition to California Lawmakers: Repeal the Flame Retardants Rule

Cover of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

Cover of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

[Update: California Governor Brown just ordered regulators to rewrite the flame retardant rule! I’ll update the petition to reflect this shortly…]

I’m still stewing about the flame retardants issue, and I’m sure you are too.

OK, so I threw out my sofa. But I still have a lot of other toxic stuff in my house, and I realize that’s not a very practical solution. After all, where would we sit?

The folks who caused this truly unfortunate situation for the whole country are really just the lawmakers in Sacramento who have failed to repeal that state’s stupid rule on flame retardants, Technical Bulletin 117.

So I figure, let’s bring our message to them. I’ve started a petition on Change.org to California lawmakers — please sign on and tell your friends to sign it. The text is below.

You may recall that, after I tossed my toxic sofa, I made a promise to keep up the heat on this issue.

Well, when we get enough signatures — 50,000? 100,000? 200,000? 500,000? — to effectively take the fight to them, I will personally pack Maya up on the plane and we will fly to California to deliver our petition to the Governor, the state lawmakers, and the press.

And you’re welcome to join me in California — the more the merrier!

So here’s my petition — please go here to sign it on Change.org:

To:  California Lawmakers

From: The Rest of Us

Re: Get These Flame Retardants Out of My House

So, you were lied to. We get it – we’ve been lied to sometimes too. But now, thanks to the Chicago Tribune, you know how you were played.

You know that the chemical industry made up fake facts about dead babies to dramatize its lies. You know about the chemical industry’s front group, Citizens for Fire Safety, and its ties to people, tactics and strategies used by Big Tobacco.

And thanks to testing by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, you also know that chemical flame retardants don’t do anything to make a fire safer, but make it more toxic and dangerous. In other words, they don’t help.

Instead, they poison our children, multiplying their risk of cancer by seven. They get into the dust and air inside our homes, and then into our bodies and blood. They are linked to birth defects, lowered IQ and fertility and other serious health problems.  Your own state of California just declared that one kind of chemical flame retardant, TDCPP, is a “probable carcinogen” under Proposition 65.

You have a right to protect the health and safety of people in California. And you are often a national leader, an example for the country.

But here’s our question on this one: what gives you the right, now that you know the truth, to keep poisoning all of us for no reason? How can you spend one more day as a lawmaker and not move to rescind Technical Bulletin 117, the rule on chemical flame retardants in furniture?

We want to believe in you. We want to believe that now you know the truth, you wouldn’t continue to do this to us and to our families.

But we really do need you to act today to repeal this disgusting and dangerous law. Show us that about this at least, we’re not wrong to think that truth will lead the way.

Signed,

All of us

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More resources:

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Please join me in gathering signatures on this petition!!!  Pass it along to your friends, and let’s see if we can shake things up.

Must Read: The Chemical Industry’s Big Fat Liar on Flame Retardants

Fellini: I'm a Born Liar

Fellini: I’m a Born Liar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Chicago Tribune just published a long investigative story on how the chemical industry’s star witness in support of chemical flame retardants has been making up terrible stories about burned babies to support these harmful laws. It’s a great piece of reporting. Here’s an excerpt:

“Now this is a tiny little person, no bigger than my Italian greyhound at home,” said Heimbach, gesturing to approximate the baby’s size. “Half of her body was severely burned. She ultimately died after about three weeks of pain and misery in the hospital.”

Heimbach’s passionate testimony about the baby’s death made the long-term health concerns about flame retardants voiced by doctors, environmentalists and even firefighters sound abstract and petty.

But there was a problem with his testimony: It wasn’t true.

Records show there was no dangerous pillow or candle fire. The baby he described didn’t exist.

Neither did the 9-week-old patient who Heimbach told California legislators died in a candle fire in 2009. Nor did the 6-week-old patient who he told Alaska lawmakers was fatally burned in her crib in 2010.

Heimbach is not just a prominent burn doctor. He is a star witness for the manufacturers of flame retardants.”

Wow. These people are disgusting and shameless. The Tribune also ran a descriptive piece on how the chemicals offer no safety benefit yesterday.

More sobering facts from the first article:

Today, scientists know that some flame retardants escape from household products and settle in dust. That’s why toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths, generally have far higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than their parents.
Blood levels of certain widely used flame retardants doubled in adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004. More recent studies show levels haven’t declined in the U.S. even though some of the chemicals have been pulled from the market. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world.

The article also confirms that for those of us interested in organic foods, having a sofa free of chemicals should actually be a far bigger concern in terms of chemical exposure:

The amount of flame retardants in a typical American home isn’t measured in parts per billion or parts per million. It’s measured in ounces and pounds.
A large couch can have up to 2 pounds in its foam cushions. The chemicals also are inside some highchairs, diaper-changing pads and breast-feeding pillows. Recyclers turn chemically treated foam into the padding underneath carpets.
“When we’re eating organic, we’re avoiding very small amounts of pesticides,” said Arlene Blum, a California chemist who has fought to limit flame retardants in household products. “Then we sit on our couch that can contain a pound of chemicals that’s from the same family as banned pesticides like DDT.”

The article provides detailed proof that the “Fire Safety” group that goes from state to state with its road show in support of flame retardants is also a liar — in sum, nothing but a deceptive front group for the chemical companies.

If there was ever a time to push California to repeal this absurd and harmful law, it’s now. Take action here. Let’s embarrass them into allowing safer and healthier furniture for all of us.

UPDATE: Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) calls for action by two federal agencies (the CPSC and EPA) to address the issue. Great news!

Sofa Saga, Part 4: Some Success! Two Great Sources for Greener Sofas

I know from some questions I’ve gotten that folks were worried about my sofa sitch. So for all (two of you) who were wondering: are Laura and Maya sitting on the floor amidst all those toxic dust bunnies? Or am I stuck in mid-air, in a yoga chair pose, hyperventilating as my thighs complain louder than an oddly persistent toddler at (twenty minutes past her) bedtime?

Your fears can now be put to rest. We will soon have someplace actually and truly non-toxic on which to rest our weary dogs at close of day.

In fact, I’m happy to report that I found a few affordable options for furniture free of chemical flame retardants! And you’re the lucky reader who gets to hear all about my quest.

(If you’re new to this blog or topic, look here, then here and here for the exciting earlier stages of my formerly sad sofa saga. It will be worth your time, I promise. Even if just for the image of our “family doctor.”)

There may be other folks out there who do this in the big wide world as well. As it turns out, a possible trick is to find a custom furniture manufacturer who will work with you (or already has purged the chemicals), and then to decide the foam or filler that’s right for you. The trickiest part of the trick is that, if you don’t happen to be, say, Leonardo DiCaprio, you may also have to convince that individual to give you a decent price.

Or the next time you need a new piece of furniture, you could just contact one or both of the companies below who make greener custom items.

Without further ado, then, I present the options: Tah-da…

Option 1:  A Nice Man from North Carolina Does Right By Me

Any attentive readers of the earlier parts of the sofa saga may be cheered to learn that my initial assessment of one Mr. Kenneth Fonville as a truly good guy was not at all off-the-mark.

Mr. Fonville, owner of Eco-Select Furniture, was kind enough to scan and send me his furniture foam’s Certipur label, knowing fully that I would run it by flame retardant toxicity expert and environmental scientist (and fellow North Carolina resident) Heather Stapleton. Stapleton, as anticipated, promptly analyzed its fake-ish assurances of eco-safety with aplomb, revealing that the label, in truth, said nothing at all reassuring on the topic of flame retardants.

I cheekily shared her analysis with Mr. Fonville, who checked into the issue further with his foam supplier. He reported back that he was able upon request to purchase foam without flame retardants in it, and that his fabrics were similarly untreated.

The offerings from Eco-select Furniture are largely traditional designs, covered in leather, hemp or other materials, with many green features, such as locally harvested sustainable hardwoods in the frames. They do use some soy-based foam in the furniture, rather than latex, for durability reasons. (Note that his blend is 25-30% “soy-based” feedstock and the rest is petroleum-based, which may be significant information for those wanting an ultra-green sofa or chair.) Their prices are also generally aligned with regular, non-“eco” furniture.

Mr. Fonville started his company fairly recently, in 2010, and his background was in traditional furniture companies, having worked more than 30 years in the industry. He began the new venture because he had become disappointed in the poor practices in the industry and the reduced quality of many imports, and he knew he could do better. His most popular furniture designs are these:

I will likely be ordering a new leather club chair to replace the icky Ikea one we have downstairs, and will look here as well for other furniture needs as they arise.

Option 2: (Green) Sofa of the Stars

Robert Craymer, of RCGreen, was once, quite literally, a rock star. Or was at one time, anyway, according to this 4-minute video featuring his eccentric ways, as well as some of his modern furniture designs. He also offered me a good price (which I promised not to reveal) on a new sofa:

Robert’s turn toward all things green first came about in 2006 when he was asked to design a novel lounge for the premiere showing of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” a tragi-comic documentary about how Detroit utterly screwed up its best opportunity to innovate on energy usage in cars. (As an advocate who watched the industry commit hari-kari over fuel economy standards all through the early aughts, this movie artfully broke what was left of my heart.)

At any rate, Robert took the themes of the film seriously, designing what was, for its time, a truly groundbreaking lounge, with furniture and items made sustainably and responsibly. Here are some of his other designs:

On foams and fillers, he was quite helpful in explaining the options. Basically, for the foam inner core, most furniture makers use: latex, soy blend, standard U.S.-made foam or foam made overseas (often in China). For cushions, options are latex, soy foam wrapped in cotton, cotton alone, or wool interior with a cotton bag on the outside.

For RCGreen designs, customers can choose the foams and fillers they like, but the materials do have disadvantages and advantages (also, he says he doesn’t use any foreign-made foams).

For example, a wool-wrapped cushion or seat can feel, as you might expect, lumpy and it will likely become harder over time. Latex, he said, is reported by some customers as having an odor (though Robert doesn’t smell it), and is more rubbery or bouncy, even though in his shop it’s wrapped in cotton. Soy-based foam, also wrapped in cotton, has been free of customer complaints. All of these are available without flame retardant chemicals.

I’m still weighing the options on fillings. There’s good evidence that soy foams may not be that much greener than traditional petrochemical foam, and many “soy-based” foams  actually have only a small percentage of soy in them, meaning that the manufacturing process that produced the rest of the foam is still a problem in that it makes nasty chemicals as a byproduct. And soy is mostly a genetically modified product, with terrible environmental costs in places like Brazil. I’ve asked both of these companies about the percentages of soy to traditional, petrochemical foam. (The EcoSelect answer is above, RCGreen’s soy foam is 22 percent soy.)

The “greenest” answer on fillings is therefore likely wool, though it settles and can become hard, or natural latex (rubber). I’m a bit allergic to some types of wool, so that is not great. On latex, the notion of a sofa made of rubber (even if wrapped in cotton) doesn’t thrill me — both for comfort and because both of the furniture makers I talked to raised issues (Mr. Fonville talked about its lack of durability; Robert about a reported smell and some level of customer dissatisfaction). Even with the price break, it’s still a real investment for us to get a new sofa, and I don’t want to have to do it again. So I’m a bit stuck on this one.

Robert gave me a substantial price break on the sofa before he learned I had a blog or would write about it in any way (I swear!). That’s because he indicated he’s accustomed to working with people who are dealing with serious chemical-related illnesses or extreme allergies, and he regularly offers them deals in the same way he did for me.

[Update:  Some commenters — including a few friends — have complained about serious customer service issues with RC Green (and some additional public reports are linked to below in the comments).  He does require payment in advance in cash, which is not a sound or defensible consumer practice.  In addition, I should have indicated that I have no way of substantiating whether our sofa is free of FRs.  Please also see the comments for more sources for furniture claimed to be free of FRs.]

The Up-Shot:

It was stunning how difficult and time-consuming it was to find decent, chemical-free options.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned: harmful chemical flame retardants are in most foam-based products, including mattresses and sofas. They shouldn’t be there. They don’t help to reduce fires, according to Stapleton and they may even increase the risks of a fire as people inhale dangerous chemicals when they burn. Despite this rank stupidity, they are very hard to avoid, which means that hundreds of millions of people are needlessly exposed, every day. The scale of this is actually hard to take sitting down.

More Sources for Sofas:

Just today, I also found this new post from another eco-blog with a few more companies that make chemical-free sofas — including from Eco-terric, Furnature, and Eklahome — most with hefty price points, and most latex-based. (I appreciated the input in the comments on that blog pointing out the eco-issues with soy-based polyurethane foams.) I’ve since found one more, Green Nest, with prices topping a whopping 5K for sofas.

There’s always the sources for greener furniture that I identified in Part 2 of the Sofa Saga series. For the real DIY-er, here are directions to somewhat affordably make one using an “organic” mattress. For reupholstering furniture with more eco-friendly fabrics, you could check out Harmony Art and Organic Leather.

If you have the dough, for really artsy “green” items (with prices to match), you can also check out a new environmentally focused artists’ market, Ecofirst Art (for lamps and similar decor, there is also has a lower-cost boutique that sells smaller items, EcovolveNow). I would be sure to inquire with all of these sources about how to ensure what you order is flame retardant-free.

I would also refer you to the comments, which include an informative dialogue on fillers and foams, fabrics, greenwashing, transparency and related topics.

if you know of any other sources for custom-made goods or truly green furniture, please do share them in the comments!

If you most understandably lack the budget for new furniture, here are 10 tips to reduce exposure:

  1. Open the windows and air out the room whenever you can;
  2. Wash your hands (and your childrens’ hands) frequently, and definitely before eating;
  3. Vacuum more often, using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and move furniture to get the dust underneath;
  4. If upholstery is damaged or leaking, fix it promptly and re-establish a seal (use duct tape if you need to, as we did!);
  5. Minimize polyurethane foam products among children’s items whenever you can (most polyester foam is better, according to Stapleton). Just last year, California evidently revised its rule on juvenile furniture to clarify that strollers, nursing pillows and infant carriers are now exempt from the requirement for flame retardants, but older items, or those that have not been redesigned since this change in the law last March, may still have the chemicals (for example, a recent test from an environmental group found them in My Brest Friend nursing pillows);
  6. Don’t let children spend time unnecessarily in car seats (or strollers with foam padding);
  7. Look for furniture from before 1970 or so (if you can stand the dust and dust mites!);
  8. Avoid buying products when you can that are labeled “flame retardant” or “Meets California Technical Bulletin 117” or “Complies with TB 117” or some such nonsense;
  9. Write to lawmakers in California telling them to ditch this stupid law;
  10. When you do need to replace your mattress, sofa or upholstered chair, consider going FR-free! I’ve done some of the research for you, anyhoo, all you have to do is make the call.