Sofa Saga, Part 3: Interview with Flame Retardants Expert, Heather Stapleton

By almost any measure, Duke University Environmental Chemistry professor Heather Stapleton is, well, a bit of a Superhero.

Her Super-powers include: not taking the words “it’s proprietary” too seriously; using x-ray vision to pierce through the truth of greenwashing labels (an ability amply demonstrated below); and caring far more about the safety and health of your children than the chemical companies (ok, maybe that last one sets a very low bar).

Stapleton was among the first to notice that indoor air pollution – rather than pollution outdoors – might be the pathway by which stuff used in televisions and sofas started showing up in our environment. When studying a particular type of flame retardants, PBDEs, she decided to measure the levels in samples of indoor air and dust from inside homes. As the authors of “Slow Death by Rubber Duck” explain (at 113):

 She was shocked at the results. Levels of flame retardants were much higher than she had expected….“When we presented this, it really opened people’s eyes. It made sense. It all fell into place. It was a different paradign about how we think about the sources of, and exposure to, these compounds.” It turns out that PBDEs leach out of the products they are put into: the squishy foam in a sofa, the padding in a mattress and the back of a TV set.

So imagine my delight when Stapleton agreed to an email interview for my series of posts noodling over the unsavory questions raised by my sofa’s apparent role in filling my home with toxic dust bunnies. (Yes, that’s the sofa’s fault, entirely.)

 My questions:

1)  Why did you start researching flame retardants in furniture?

I’ve been researching flame retardants since graduate school. As a graduate student, I was interested in how the chemicals were accumulating in wildlife and how they were metabolized, but then my interests moved more towards understanding human exposure and health effects. This naturally led me into analyzing consumer products to better understand which chemicals were being used as flame retardants in products and to collect information on the levels used in these products.

2)  What has your research found about the prevalence of flame retardants? What are they doing in baby strollers?

Some flame retardants are now considered ubiquitous. They are present everywhere, from the dust in our living rooms and bedrooms to the air in the North Pole. They are unfortunately applied to numerous baby products, including strollers, because these products contain polyurethane foam, and some agencies consider these products to be “juvenile furniture.” According to a California state law, juvenile furniture has to meet a flammability standard. And the only way to meet this standard in a product containing foam, is to add these types of chemical flame retardants.

[Note: 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. While common sense prevailed, older items, and even newer items that still may comply with the law, would still have the chemicals in them.]

 3) What does the research show is the harm, in brief, of these chemicals? (If you’d like to separate PBDEs, Tris and Firemaster 550, that would be fine of course. Is there any new research on harms of Firemaster, in particular?)

This is a difficult question to ask. We know much more about PBDEs than we do FM 550 or TDCPP (the primary Tris…there are actually many different types of Tris…so use caution in using this term).

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. We just don’t know much at all about FM 550, yet we know that people, are particularly children, are receiving chronic exposure to FM 550 in their homes through contact with indoor dust particles (the same pathway as PBDEs).

 4) What should consumers do to minimize exposure to these chemicals?

Support legislative efforts to prohibit use of these chemicals in products, particularly baby products. There is actually no proof at all that these chemicals reduce the fire hazards of furniture (NONE- zippo!). There is a lot of mis-information spread by the chemical industry on this point. Most people assume that these chemicals prevent products from catching on fire, but they do not.

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!

But to reduce exposure, the only suggestion we can offer is to avoid buying products that contain foam (and are more likely to contain flame retardants), and wash your hands often.  Our recent studies demonstrate that people are more likely to have higher exposure and body burdens if they wash their hands less frequently.  Washing hands is always a good practice for all health concerns!

 5) What do you do in your home to minimize exposure?

It’s very hard to minimize exposure.  The furniture in my house is manufactured in Italy by a manufacturer who does not make furniture to meet the California flammability standard. While it’s great, it’s also much more expensive that most furniture solid in the US.  And for most of our baby products I was able to find flame retardant free products by searching for products that do not contain polyurethane foam.  Most products that contain polyester filling do not need flame retardant chemicals to meet the California standard.

6) Is it possible to avoid flame retardant chemicals in older furniture? Is there a date before which they may safer?

Flame retardants have been in use in different applications and products for several decades, at least as early as the 1970s, and maybe earlier.   No, there is no way to know if older furniture contains flame retardants, but it’s very likely that it will have flame retardants if the furniture contains polyurethane foam AND contains a label indicating that it meets the flammability requirements of CA TB 117.

7) One small furniture maker, Eco-Select Furniture, in NC, sent me their foam label. I would very interested in your view on what is likely to be the chemical used.

The label you sent is simply an advertisement for the Certipur program. This is a program developed by US polyurethane foam manufacturers to demonstrate environmental stewardship.  It means that the foam used in that product has been tested for several known toxins including VOCs, metals and a few flame retardants.

But the product can certainly still contain a flame retardant and have the Certipur label.

There are many in use on the market today that are not tested in the Certipur program and for which we have concerns about health effects (e.g., Firemaster 550, V6, triarylphosphates, etc.).  If the product has a Certipur Label AND a label indicating that it meets CA TB 117, it still has a flame retardant in it, then that Certipur label only means that it does not have PBDEs (which were phased out in 2005 anyway) or Chlorinated Tris.

8) What is the impediment to fixing the California law so that these chemicals are only in products as needed?

Yeah, that is the million dollar question. Unfortunately, I think any attempt to change the CA law is going to be hampered by the chemical companies lobbyists who spread misinformation and use scare tactics to impede the truth and prevent any legislation from passing.