Toxic Hot Seat on HBO tonight!

Red sofa

Red sofa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hallelujah! A new film about the struggle to understand and address the hidden poisons in our sofas — Toxic Hot Seat — airs for the first time tonight on HBO. Slate has a preview with a couple tantalizing clips. You can also see it on HBO-Go, the on-demand service.

This is exciting, as it appears it will tell the story the Chicago Tribune first unearthed over a year ago in its epic Playing with Fire series.  In sum, flacks from the chemical industry lied to California lawmakers about the reasons babies were killed in household fires in order to guilt them into maintaining a requirement for toxic flame retardants in furniture. The Trib also unearthed seedy connections to Big Tobacco and ripped the mask off a “fire-safety” front group that had been backed by the chemical manufacturers.

As we now know, we’ve now poisoned a generation or two with these chemicals. One study showed 97 percent of Americans have flame retardant chemicals in their bloodstreams, which are linked to health risks including cancer, infertility, obesity, neurodevelopmental delays and even behavior issues and lowered IQ levels. In a tragically ironic twist, the brave men and women who protect us in fires have been hit particularly hard, and now can face dire health consequences from the exposures to toxic smoke.

The film comes on the heels of an excellent but frightening study published last week by the Center for Environmental Health, Playing on Poisons, that showed that 90 percent of children’s furniture is laced with flame retardant chemicals. Because they crawl around on dusty floors and put things in their mouths, studies show kids have higher levels in their bodies of these chemicals than adults do. Thankfully, even recent action in California to ban one class of flame retardants chemicals produced a precipitous drop in the chemical in pregnant women, as measured in September of this year.

I’m glad the word is getting out. I imagine we’ll see a lot more couches on curbs in the coming days. Parents should also toss those adorable fuzzy pjs (which are often sprayed with the chemicals), and replace them with old cotton clothes or tight-fitting cotton jammies. A full post on that is coming soon. And here’s more information — including tips to avoid flame retardants — from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

While it’s true that the California requirement is no longer on the books, many manufacturers will be slow to change their products, and there are state laws in many places requiring any public accommodations to purchase furniture containing flame retardant chemicals, as well as standards that require them in heavy doses in airplanes and children’s car seats. What we really need is chemical reform at the federal level to ensure that chemicals are tested thoroughly before we are all made into the guinea pigs of the chemical industry.

In the meantime, here’s my posts on this for folks new to the issue or blog:

Dear California, You Owe America a New Couch

IMG_3300Sent to: tb117comments@dca.ca.gov
Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation
4244 South Market Court, Suite D
Sacramento, CA 95834

Dear Governor Brown and Chief Blood:

After years of being duped by stooges from the chemical industry, you have finally taken a big step in the right direction.

Your proposed rule on flame retardants in furniture (TB 117-2013) would greatly improve the lives of both Californians and the rest of America, which buys furniture impacted by California’s standards, by allowing furniture makers to drop the use of IQ-destroying, fertility-lowering, carcinogenic chemicals.

In fact, your previous “fire safety” standards did not protect public safety, as tests by federal regulators show, because they delay a fire by only 2-3 seconds, while making smoke, toxicity and soot worse. A comprehensive paper by Arlene Blum and other leading scientists, “Halogenated Flame Retardants: Do the Fire Safety Benefits Justify the Risks?” from Reviews on Environmental Health in 2010 (pdf link here) explains, on pages 281-2:

Laboratory research on TB117 supports this lack of measurable fire safety benefit. A study at the National Bureau of Standards in 1983 showed that following ignition, the important fire hazard indicators (peak heat release rate and the time to peak) were the same in TB117-compliant furniture where the foam was treated with chemical flame retardants and in non-treated furniture. A small flame was able to ignite both regular furniture and furniture meeting the TB117 standard—once ignited, the fire hazard was essentially identical for both types.

A 1995 report from the Proceedings of the Polyurethane Foam Association provides further evidence that TB117 does not improve fire safety. Small open flame and cigarette ignition tests were performed separately on 15 fabrics covering TB117 type polyurethane foam, conventional polyurethane foam, and polyester fiber wrap between the fabric cover and the foam cores. The study found no improvement in ignition or flame spread from a small open flame or cigarette ignition propensity using TB117-compliant foam.

The authors also provide other reasons why the old California test, which exposed the internal foam directly to flame, is pointless — for one, because the fabric often also catches on fire and can provide its own ignition source.

In fact, though its not due to chemicals, the number of people (and children) who die in a fire has gone down dramatically over the past century, which makes sense when you think about the absence of headlines about cows allegedly knocking over lanterns and lighting whole cities ablaze. It’s a resounding victory for public safety measures, as these numbers from the National Fire Protection Association (pdf) indicate:

Out of a million Americans, average number who died of unintentional injury due to fire:
in 2007: 9

in 1992: 16

in 1977: 29

in 1962: 41

in 1947: 56

in 1932: 57

in 1917: 105

Nonetheless, California evidently was taken in by chemical company goons posing as fire safety “experts” touting lies and exploiting the tragic deaths of infants for their own profits.

Interestingly, California lacks a law that provides penalties under the law for lying to state officials or lawmakers. In contrast, federal law has criminal penalties for intentional deception of a federal official, and the federal rulemaking docket at the CPSC on flame retardants, curiously, does not have any comments on burned babies as a part of the submissions. My conclusion? You guys should get one of those laws that makes it illegal to lie to you about important things.

In this case, the consequences were awful. For all of us, really. Because of your terrible judgment, we have pounds of dangerous and pointless chemicals in our homes, in our indoor air, and in the bloodstreams of our children. As the Blum paper says:

Many of these chemicals are now recognized as global contaminants and are associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans, including endocrine and thyroid disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function.

How many kids have you put at risk? Let’s make a rough estimate. A recent paper reported on by the New York Times, found flame retardants in the blood of 100 percent — every single! — toddler they tested. And a table under the Population tab on this page indicates that there are an estimated 50.7 million children in the U.S. ages 0-11 today. The CPSC study (pdf) as to chlorinated tris (just one of these chemicals) in 2006 specifically concluded:

The estimated cancer risk for a lifetime of exposure to TDCP-treated upholstered furniture was 300 per million. In children, the estimated cancer risk from exposure during the first two years of life alone was 20 per million. Both of these risks exceed one-in-a-million. A substance may be considered hazardous if the lifetime individual cancer risk exceeds one-in-a-million.

So the overall risk for a child from exposure to tris is 20 times 50 million children, or one thousand kids (extra) with cancer. And, sadly, childhood rates of the worst kinds of cancer are on the increase. According to the National Cancer Institute:

Over the past 20 years, there has been some increase in the incidence of children diagnosed with all forms of invasive cancer, from 11.5 cases per 100,000 children in 1975 to 14.8 per 100,000 children in 2004.

In fact, it appears that a person’s lifetime risk of dying of cancer is 192 times their risk of dying in a fire:

Lifetime odds of death for selected causes, United States, 2008*

Total, any cause 1 in 1

Heart disease 1 in 6

Cancer 1 in 7


Exposure to smoke, fire, and flames 1 in 1,344

And that’s just for cancer risks. There’s also reproductive harm, attention deficit issues, and other health damage linked to flame retardants. For just one example, here’s sobering coverage of a 2012 study linking maternal-fetal levels of PBDEs, another ubiquitous flame retardant found in 97 percent of the study subjects, to delayed development in the child at age 7.

In sum, you’ve royally screwed up. The best thing to do when you’ve made a colossal error in judgment? Apologize and try your best to make it right.

There’s really no two ways about it, California: you owe Americans a new couch. One that won’t poison our homes and make our children sick. One that won’t show up in our bloodstreams, ‘fer Pete’s sake.

Seriously. This is really not too much to ask, given the harm you’ve caused. IMHO, the chemical companies could pay for it out of the profits they made peddling all that cancerous stuff. Certainly, the good people of California, who have the highest levels of flame retardants in their bodies in the world, have suffered enough.

At any rate, I look forward to hearing from you. A (flame-retardant-free) loveseat in a nice brown or beige would do just fine.

All best,

Laura

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Related posts:

And now, for some things YOU can do on flame retardants…

Car seat 1

(Photo credit: treehouse1977)

I’ve been busy getting used to working again, getting Maya transitioned to the new schedule, working on my nascent book proposal, and hatching plans for a new on-line venture, about which you will hear more soon.

In addition, just this week, a terrible family tragedy has consumed all of us. We’re okay, but our loved ones are really hurting.

I will be back posting again shortly, as soon as I get my feet under me. In the meantime, here’s news you can use:

On a personal note, the latest CEH study makes me want to hork and have one of my classic post-hoc freak-outs about Maya’s $^%#!^ car seat. We’ve been using a Britax for its excellent safety ratings from Consumer Reports, but I was always upset about the flame retardants, as I ‘splained here. CEH says:

One product, a Britax infant car seat purchased from Babies R Us, contained significantly more Tris than the average amount in similar foam baby products tested for a 2011 national study. That study warned that baby products with 3-4% Tris could expose children to the chemical in amounts greater than the federal “acceptable” daily exposure level.

Oh, wow. If I was ticked off and worried before, I really should just chuck and replace them now. Britax did promise to phase the chemicals out by this past January, but has evidently missed that deadline, according to the good people who comment on such things in my posts. I will check out the other options asap, and share what more I find out.

And I will grapple with my normal dilemma of trying to resell what once was a 400-dollar car seat to some family less informed than me — if the past is any indicator, even my dire and honest explanations will not get in the way of a deal once proffered. So more kids get exposed, or it goes straight to the landfill and back to all of us as it degrades. What a crappy dilemma. Anyone know what the stores do with them that have buy-back programs? Maybe that’s an option…

If there’s big news I missed, please let me know. Next post, I promise to fix the glitch in my rant on toddler snacks and re-publish that bad boy.

The Best and Worst Week, Basically Ever

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (Photo credit: Cayusa)

I’ll start, as one always should, with the good news. On Friday, the state of California, acting at the direction of Governor Jerry Brown, has proposed a revised flammability standard for furniture that would require no chemicals!

The new rule, which is undergoing a 45-day comment period before being finalized, will require only that fabrics used in furniture resist a smolder test like that from a cigarette, and will not require that interior foams meet any test. Because furniture can be made to be less flammable through a good choice of fabric, this will allow better manufacturers to drop the use of chemicals altogether.

Because the California rule impacted the national market for furniture, this represents a tremendous step forward for public health. However, it is not a ban on the use of chemical flame retardants, so it does not mean that new furniture will necessarily lack flame retardants (FRs) — at least for a while. Consumers looking to buy new furniture should still ask whether the foam and fabric have been treated, because it takes time for manufacturers to alter their practices and research new foams and fabrics. (There’s a few sources here and here if you need ’em for FR-free furniture.)

But it’s great news! The Consumer Federation of America is organizing consumer letters for the comment period, here — you should go sign one to let regulators know that you also support flame retardant standards that do not require any chemicals.

Now for a less happy word on why, after my cheerily naive posts last week, it took me two days to catch up to Friday’s good news. I was slain by the Norovirus. And by slain, I mean decimated, flat out on the couch, unable to move. While Maya seemed a little under the weather late last week, I had no idea that her body was carrying a insidious viral passenger meant for me. On Sunday, I started to feel woozy, but by Sunday night, I was all chills and fever, in rapid cycling fashion.

On Monday morning, Maya woke me up at a brutally early 6:30 a.m., and I didn’t feel right. At all. In fact, my head was so wobbly on my shoulders that I worried that it would pop off and roll down the hallway like in that grisly scene from the first season of Louie. Maya pleaded with me to get up, so I struggled to my feet, making it only as far as the bathroom. I looked down at her, and she said, “Poopy.” Her diaper was straggling halfway down her leg, inside her pajamas.

I picked her up, got her up on the changing table atop the dresser, and then lost my grip on everything. It’s true what they say about the floor coming up to meet you. I fell backwards, and then passed out cold on the floor. I must have really gone down with a thud because my head hurt for two days despite the thick carpet.

When I came to (How could I have forgotten to put on my glasses?? Another bad sign.), I saw through the blur, and then remembered in real horror, that Maya was four feet off the ground. I struggled to stand up, which took a few tries, and then, in my addled state, somehow thought finishing her diaper and getting her pants on was the next relevant task. I got her dressed, and let her slide down to the floor along my body.

I was sweating like I had just finished a marathon (irony, pure irony), which the doctor later told me is a cortisol reaction to a blackout. I found the phone and discovered that my husband was still at the bus stop. He came right home, and we went to the hospital. After a battery of tests, they pronounced me flu-ridden, dehydrated and exhausted, with a soupcon of pink eye for good measure. They pumped me up with a drip and a pain reliever or two and sent me home with a scrip for the conjunctivitis.

Thus began my week from heck. Take it from me, the Norovirus is like a Dementor that saps your will to live. After laying both Maya and me out flat for several days, it lightened up a bit only to deliver a nasty set of secondary infections that required doctor’s visits and drugs. Then I had a very poor reaction to the (overly strong) antibiotic, and was kaputso for another two days.

We’ll just call it the Lost Week. Here are the questions I kept pondering in my still-queasy, half-alive state:

1) When you are sick and so is your kid, what in the samhey are you supposed to do? You can’t hand them off to someone else for fearing of giving another toddler the Bubonic, and you can’t really take care of them and get better yourself. After Monday, my husband had to go back to work and my mom (who did drive out to take care of Maya and stayed all day Monday) retired in fear of joining the germ-fest.

Then, it was just me and little Ms. Fellow Misery, and I’ll just say I did not love the company. I could not read to her, really, or play, and so the days were dreary, awful affairs. Needless to say, I violated every principle dear to me: we ordered (non-organic, and fairly gross) pizza; we watched a few videos. I couldn’t feed her or properly take care of me, I couldn’t see anyone or take her anywhere. It was isolating, and after the blackout, even a little scary.

2) How long will it be before Maya forgets what happened? Although I have never had this kind of fainting episode before, Maya keeps asking whether I will fall down, and before bed every night this week, has said she feels she is falling. She is also giving me lots of hugs and saying she wants to take care of me, which I have to admit is cuddlicious. Still, it’s clearly affected her. I know kids are resilient and all that, but it tears at my heart that I obviously scared her and seem less reliable in her eyes.

3) How can I prevent this from happening again? Everyone who has ever spent time alone with a child has feared a moment where they might be somehow, suddenly incapacitated. And this week, when it happened to me, it was just as terrifying as you think it might be. My resolution is to try to take better measure of my limits, and certainly (duh) never to put Maya in high places whenever I don’t feel well enough to stand.

But it goes deeper than that: before this happened, I don’t think I had really ever grappled before with this new responsibility to Maya that is really, first and foremost, about taking care of me. It’s like what they always tell us on planes: we have to get our own oxygen masks secure first.

We were lucky, and I am very grateful, but it could have been so much worse, as I shudder to think. Despite this awful, relentless illness, I think I found out the relatively easy way: when we don’t take good care of ourselves as parents, it’s our kids that could get hurt.

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!

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:

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.