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:

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.

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.

Curb Alert: Free (Toxic) Sofa

Maya had finally gone down for her nap this afternoon, and I thought it was the perfect time to finally read all of the many articles that the Chicago Tribune published last week on the harms of chemical flame retardants.

I’ve been looking into this issue in a cheeky 4-part “Sofa Saga,” so I’d already skimmed a few of the pieces, but had not really had time to digest the whole series. I was reminded of the power of the investigation by Nicholas Kristof’s excellent column today as well.

So I was reading along, and feeling pretty good about things, actually, given that I hadn’t gotten any of the facts wrong in the blog posts, when I came to this paragraph:

In 2006, researchers at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission cautioned that adding chlorinated tris to furniture would expose children to nearly twice the daily dose deemed acceptable by the federal agency. The cancer risk for children during the first two years of life would be seven times higher than what most physicians, scientists and regulators consider acceptable, according to the safety commission’s report.

Seven times the risk of cancer. Seven. My heart basically stopped for 20 seconds. My stomach rose up and took over my throat.

The sofa I have from Ikea has chlorinated tris in it, according to research by Heather Stapleton. I sat on that couch almost every day of my pregnancy, and my daughter Maya has played on it basically every day of her 20 months of existence. Sometimes, she licks it.

She was “reading” to her stuffed bear just today, sitting there, and here she is at 8 months:

When not sitting on that sofa, I was self-righteously running around town tracking down sources for expensive grassfed, organic beef to get rid of trace amounts of pesticides. Or spending a small fortune on wooden toys.

While sitting on that sofa, I chatted with the New York Times reporter who wrote an article calling me paranoid about toxic chemicals.

While sitting on that sofa filled with literally pounds of carcinogens, I’ve spent hours researching healthier products for my family, including a sofa without flame retardants. They make fools of all of us.

Some lame rationalizations flitted through my mind, while my heart grew heavy and sad. I open the windows sometimes, I thought. We vacuum. I began to feel physically sick.

Fury does not really describe it. I tried to finish the article. But I was sitting on that sofa.

A new, better sofa is eventually on the way, but it’s likely several weeks away at least, and maybe a month.

I thought about sitting on the floor. And then I thought, fine. The floor it is.

I was so angry that I was able single-handedly to put it out on the curb.

Here’s the note I posted to the neighborhood list serv (they already think I’m nuts):

Curb Alert: Free black “leather” large Ikea sofa, decent condition

Here’s my now-typical awkward caveat:

I dumped it because it’s full of a particularly harmful form of flame retardants, called chlorinated tris, that was banned from children’s PJs in the late 1970s as a mutagen — and is also now known to be a potent carcinogen.

I was already following this issue on my blog, but the Chicago Tribune series last week, which I am just reading now, made me actually get up and put it on the curb. I’m furious, actually.

It looks like rain, so if you want it, better come and get it.

Laura

Here’s the thing, Citizens for Fire Safety, you liars, I’m looking at you. And I’m a mom.

If my daughter ever gets sick in any way that can be tied back to her nearly two years of crawling all over this toxic piece of junk, I will personally show up everywhere you try to deceive state legislatures to finish the job of exposing you that was started by the Tribune.

And hey, chemical manufacturers, like the flame retardant chemical makers — Albemarle, ICL Industrial Products and Chemtura (“Chemtura”? Really?) — I’m telling you now, you have a problem that a little chemical switcherooni is not about to fix.

I’m done letting you be the only ones who know what’s in my house, and in our air, and in my daughter’s blood. What’s in our bodies can’t be your proprietary little stew of hazards. You want to keep it proprietary? Keep it out of my house.

I’m really over this experimentation on all of us. I’m so over learning two years down the road that, despite my best efforts, you’ve been poisoning my daughter, lying to lawmakers, and laughing all the way to the bank.

You’ve messed with the wrong mom. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. You’d better hope that lawmakers in California get to you first.

Ouch, Couch! A Sad Sofa Saga… Part 2

In which our heroine searches in vain for someplace safe and healthy to sit. Should be simple enough, right?

If you read my last post, you’ll know that, just as Dr. Seuss says, there’s a Bofa on my sofa.

So what am I going to do about it? Well, the Sofa Situation is still evolving, but here’s what I know so far:

First, there’s a lot of green-washing on the question of what is an “eco-sofa.” The vast majority of “green” sofas may have sustainably harvested wood, which is great, and may even have traded some soy-based foam for petroleum foam, which I suppose is good (I haven’t looked at the climate tradeoffs, but it seems likely to be better to use fewer petrochemicals).

But they don’t often mention the issue of chemical flame retardants. With a few rare exceptions, you basically have to corner a customer service representative who actually knows the answer to your nutty questions, and even then, they may be reading from a document with more relation to the periodic table than to typical customer service scripts.

Nonetheless, the answer, pretty uniformly, is that an idiotic California law called California Technical Bulletin 117 requires anything sold in California (i.e., almost anything sold by any seller of any size in the U.S.), to have these harmful chemicals in it.

This law is defended every year against attempts to take it off the books by a shadowy chemical lobby group masquerading as a fire safety squad, and so a chemical dictate from the crunchy state of California ends up polluting homes and people all over this great nation. Of course, if they didn’t make all the foam in things out of, basically, solidified gasoline, then they might not need to douse it in toxics just to keep us from blowing up the house. (But see: fire retardants do bupkis to improve fire safety.)

Second, if I read one more post from a green living Web site about the new “eco-fabulous” green design options, I’m going to toss my sprouts. There are, it turns out, a few incredibly pricey options for chemical flame retardant-free sofas, if you’re willing to auction your first-born to get them. Since I only have one child, that’s not really an option.

If you want a sofa without chemicals in it, you’re all in on the green thing – you can’t go halfsies, because they won’t let you. You’ll get the certified sustainably harvested this, and the hemp fabric that, which I suppose would be ok, except for the fact that you’re paying a hefty upcharge for all of it. (The menu option of “I’ll just take one without the added side-dish of toxics” is basically a non-starter.)

One company requires – and I’m not joking here – a doctor’s note saying you should be allowed to order your sofa chemical-free, because of, you know, your mentally questionable insistence on not wanting to breathe toxic chemicals while watching Game of Thrones.

Here’s what didn’t work:

1)    Crate and Barrel and West Elm have a number of attractive options marketed as “green sofas.” But when I called customer service, they said that they complied with the California law by including a “chlorinated phosphate” in the fabric and foam, which sounds like Tris to my uninformed, and admittedly paranoid, ears. (If someone else has a better guess, please let me know.) At any rate, phosphates = chemicals.

2)    Despite overly enthusiastic referrals from an eco-design Web site, Overstock was similar, but with even less clear information and even more of a green tinted hue concealing the facts. Even their more environmentally friendly options often only had one “green” thing about them, for example, this “eco-sofa,” which was allegedly green because it “uses environmentally friendly soy based foam that offers improved durability, strength, support and comfort versus conventional foam cores.” To be fair, the one reviewer did say that there was minimal off-gassing, which can’t be a bad thing, but I’m still concerned that they believed the product is more environmentally healthy than it actually seems to be from the information provided.

3)    An outfit called Greensofas.com seemed promising, given the reasonable prices, despite the California location. But when I called the phone number on the site (there was no way to place an order online), I got the phone company operator saying that it was an invalid number. Hard to place an order there.

4)    Here’s my comically uninformative exchange with “The Sofa Company” via their Livechat option: “You are now chatting with ‘thesofaco.’ you: Is it possible to buy an eco-friendly sofa without any flame retardants in the fabric or foam please? thesofaco: No at the moment there is still about 60% off flame retardants in the foam”

5)    Broyhill Furniture’s Customer Service representative told me over the phone that “to comply with furnishing and fire safety regulations…all coverings and fillings are cigarette and match resistant.” ‘Nuff said.

6)    A couple other companies, such as If Green, were nice enough to talk with me but were no longer producing furniture. Q Collection these days seems to be a fabric-only company. Pure by Ami McKay appears to be a bedding line for Bed, Bath & Beyond, with no sofas in evidence.

7)    I even called two custom furniture places in my area. One didn’t get back to me. The other makes knock-offs of designs from other furniture places on the cheap. They checked on the issue, and couldn’t get supplies without chemicals due to the fact that everything came from – you guessed it – California, which seems to be some kind of chemical-cabal couch clearinghouse with a lock-down on the national market.

Drum roll, please.

Here are the 5 options I found for  “green” sofas without (known) chemical flame retardants:

Option 1: The High-End Winner

The sofas that I liked best were from Ecobalanza, which offers a number of styles to choose from. Here’s how that conversation went:

Hello,

I am very interested in purchasing a sofa, in particular, the Eli in dark brown Hemp, the Mai in crimson, or the Round-d in crimson. What are the prices and shipping charges please? Please confirm that you do not use any chemical flame retardants, including PBDEs or Tris.

Thanks!

Laura

Hi Laura,

Thank you for your interest in our furniture line. We pride ourselves in the purity of materials, craftsmanship and love that goes into building our sofas. We do not use any chemical fire retardants in our furniture. In fact, we only use natural and organic materials. Synthetic materials would only be used in case you requested a recycled polyester upholstery fabric. Below I am including a pdf with a more about how we build our furniture and some photos.

For fire retardants, we use 4 different types of wool, 2 of which we have developed in collaboration with local farms and artisans:

1. Local felted wool covers all wood and flat surfaces
2. Certified organic German wool for cushions and smooth backs.
3. Local breed specific wool for back cushions filled with hand fluffed kapok.
4. Thick wool padding over springs

Let me know if you have more questions and if you would like swatches sent, we work with a broad range of fabric options that are not currently shown on the website.

Pricing for the pieces you are interested in are as follows:

Eli in dark brown Hemp: 72 x 36 x 36 $3775

Mai in crimson (priced in wool, but other fabrics available): 75 X 40 X 32 $5880

Round-d in crimson (priced in wool, but other fabrics available): 72 x 35 x 34 $4375

Did you get a chance to check out additional photos of our work? You can view them on Facebook. Thank you and hope your day is wonderful,

Sincerely,

Aimee

888.220.6020 | F. 888.503.0535

PO Box 17183

Seattle, WA 98127

www.ecobalanza.com

Passionately committed to contributing to a healthier home, community and environment.

###

She also estimated shipping, in a later exchange, at around $500 for curbside delivery. So even the cheapest option from this company clocks in at over 4K.

On the other hand, her response was refreshingly thoughtful and thorough. And the designs from this company are modern and stylish, so at least they also look spendy.

Option 2: The Green Slouch

For about the same amount of money, you can also buy a sofa from Dalla Terra. There’s really only one style, plus a matching club chair. There is also a loveseat and sectional. You have the choice of 4 colors of hemp fabric and 4 wooden trim tones. For the sofa, it’s 5K plus shipping.

They are a little schlumpy for that pricetage, in my view. But they do look comfy, and they are free of chemicals:

Hi there,

I’m looking to order an environmentally friendly sofa. Would you please confirm that your natural foam latex and other materials in the sofa foam or fabric are not treated with any chemical flame retardants? Thanks so much!

Laura MacCleery

From: EcoChoices Natural Living Store
Date: April 9, 2012 7:30:54 PM EDT
To: ‘Laura MacCleery’
Subject: RE: Dalla Terra Freight Quote Request

Dear Laura,

Yes, that is correct. There are no fire retardants on our sofas. Please let us know if you have any questions.

Best Regards,
Christopher
Customer Service
EcoChoices Natural Living Store
Helping people live greener & healthier lives since 1997.
http://www.ecochoices.com/

Option 3:  The Latex Solution

Another company, Viesso, offers a chemical-free upgrade to their basic sofas, which already do already have eco-friendly features. These include, according to their Web site:

– locally sourced hardwood frames
– natural jute webbing and a wool deck
– fabrics that are natural, recycled, or both. you can filter by “eco-friendly only.”

If you pay a significant up-charge and select “Extreme Green” from the foam menu, you also get a sofa with 100% natural latex on the arms, back, frame, and cushion filling. (Latex is essentially rubber, and I have concerns about whether it’s really the most comfortable thing to stretch out on. In addition, due to a later conversation, I’d also now want to ask whether the latex itself is treated with anything, which I have not yet had time to do.) You can also add goose down inside the seat and back cushions around the latex, to make it softer, again for a surcharge.

I asked the customer service fellow, who was very helpful, about the fabric. He said that you can choose to cover the furniture with untreated “organic cottons and hemp,” and that some of the polyester fabrics did have flame retardants in the stain-resistance treatments.  There are a significant number of styles to choose from, and a lot of fabrics, and those without flame retardants are indicated in the fabric menu. Shipping would range from $290 to $390 per item.

Fiddling around with the site, it also became clear that all of the more reasonably priced items were in-stock furniture that did not include custom options like my eco-upgrade. With the upgrade and shipping included, these sofas also topped $3K, and most were above 4K.

Option 4:  With a Note from Your Doctor, Crazy Lady.

Cisco Brothers, which has a “greener” outlook on furniture, allows customers to choose an “inside green” construction option for an up-charge.  Inside green construction uses 100 percent wool, organic cotton, and latex. There are a lot of styles and fabrics to choose from.

But in order to get the latex free of any chemical treatments for flame resistance, I would need a note from my doctor, which they allegedly keep on file in case there’s a fire in my home and I want to sue them for selling me a healthier sofa.

I asked the Customer Service representative for a sample form for such a note, but she didn’t have one. So here’s my draft:

Dear Company,

My patient would like to have her toddler’s bodily fluids remain as free as possible from IQ-lowering chemicals.

Zank you very much,

Dr. Strangelove

I asked how many times this is requested per year, and she said “five or so, not very often. It’s mainly if you have a chemical sensitivity, or something…” Her voice trailed off, her question mark just hanging in the air.

They don’t sell directly to the public, and there’s not a retailer near me, so we didn’t get into pricing. But they do have floor models out in New York City at the enormous style emporium, ABC Carpet, and I might get a chance to pop by next time I’m up there for work, which happens fairly often.

Given that an ashtray at ABC is out of my price-range, I’m not hopeful. But at least I’ll have someplace decent to sit while I’m visiting the store.

Option 5:  The Mystery Chemical that Is, Sadly, Likely Not OK. 

A very nice man, Ken Fonville, runs a small eco-furniture concern in North Carolina, Eco-Select Furniture. He seemed genuinely troubled when I told him that a fellow North Carolinian, Heather Stapleton, had identified toxic chemicals in young children that likely come from furniture.

He did mention in passing as part of our convo that latex-based furniture degrades under UV rays. He also pointed out that it tends to, as he put it with a slight drawl, “take a set, after a while” meaning, I guess, that it would eventually show (un)shapely indentations.

I have no opinion on whether this is true, but it didn’t seem to come from a competitive place. He was merely reflecting on why he didn’t use latex in his upholstery.

I liked his furniture because it is covered in leather. With a toddler and stain resistant chemicals off the table, all this hemp coverings business gives me real pause. And his prices are in line with what furniture normally costs.

His products use soy blend for 25 percent of the foam, and his lumber is locally certified. He read me the chemical tag for the foam, which indicated that there were no PBDEs, and no Tris. So his might be the Firemaster kind? I’m guessing. Without a test by Ms. Stapleton, we’ll never know.

It’s too bad, really. He was that nice. He was an owner who answered the phone and patiently listened while I basically lectured him on the risks to children from flame retardants in his furniture. He’s obviously really trying to get it right.

And so I really wish I could buy his couch.

###

What’s the upshot of all this?

Basically, we’ve got to cough up enough dough that we’ll have to forgo the next few vacations and then some, or continue sucking it up with old Ikea.

I suppose that instead of traveling the world, we’ll just hang out on our new couch, basking in how eco-fabulous we truly are. We’ll have to cancel cable, so we’ll just stare at the wall.

Seriously, what do you think I should do? Do you know of any other options for a truly green set-to?

Until then, I wish the Bofa would just move over. Just a little bit. There.

[Update: For more options on chemical-free furniture, please see the post and discussion in the comments for Sofa Saga, Part 4.]

Ouch, Couch! A Sad Sofa Saga…Part 1

ISO: Someplace (safe and healthy) to sit.

So, it all began sometime after I thought I had done exactly the right thing. (And whenever I get THAT feeling, I should know better.)

A friend of mine who runs an environmental organization wrote me after the New York Times piece came out a few weeks back to say two things: 1) Maya is very cute; 2) I should get rid of my couch.

(Now mind you, she didn’t ask what kind of couch I had, which should have been my first clue that I was asking for a world of trouble. And yes, I do have friends that are that well-meaning in a kinda pushy way. And I like ’em for it.)

I wrote back to say, thanks! And that we have an Ikea couch, which should be fine. And she wrote back to say, think again. Cue record scratch….here.

The issue here is chemical flame retardants, which are in the foam and fabric of upholstered furniture (as well as car seats, and even strollers, which is really dumb. Watch out, the stroller’s on fire!).

I had hoped we had actually solved this issue, because the flame retardants don’t actually stay in the furniture. Research shows that they get into the dust we breathe, and on the floor, where children play and crawl around. They’ve been linked to lowered IQ, cancer, thyroid dysfunction, lowered sperm count in men, you name it. One kind in particular, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDE, still has not been banned in the U.S., and gets a pretty bad rap, particularly as its been found in the blood of American toddlers at levels 3 times higher than even that of their parents (which in turn, is far higher than samples of the chemicals among Europeans).

Turns out, I was misled along with everyone else. Back in 2009 and early 2010, when I was pregnant, I started doing all sorts of reading, which is what you do when you are, literally, the size of a sofa yourself.

I happened to read this passage from the tragi-comically named “Slow Death by Rubber Duck,” in which the authors interview a scientist, Heather Stapleton, who was instrumental in showing that the chemicals get into our bodies even though they start off in the furniture:

“Are you careful in your personal life to try and avoid PBDE-laced products?” I asked.

“I am where I can be,” she replied. “For example, I don’t like to have carpets in my home; I prefer hardwood floors…. Ikea has moved away from all halogenated flame retardants, so I try to buy furniture from Ikea.”

Aha, I thought. A solution. So I called the Salvation Army, had them pick up my old couch and haul it away, and looked for a used, fugly Ikea sofa on Craigslist. Not only would I be skipping the flame retardants, I thought, but I’d also be picking it up after the formaldehyde and glues were done off-gassing. I went for their “leather” style, because it was less likely to be treated with stainguard chemicals. Now, that’s thinkin’.

My fugly Ikea sofa

Of course we found one easily, and I turned my attention to oh, having a baby. Until a few weeks ago, when I got that good news/bad news email.

In the meantime, the same Heather Stapleton continued looking into the issue. Given the timing, it was probably the minute after I hung up the phone with my Craigslist guy back in the spring of 2010 that she published her test results regarding what, exactly, were the flame retardants that Ikea and other manufacturers were using instead of PBDEs in furniture.

Surprise! Turns out, Ikea is using a chemical banned from children’s pajamas after a huge public stink back in the 1970s because it causes cancer and genetic mutations known as “Tris” (or 2,3-dibromopropyl phosphate, for the chemically curious). Back then, they learned that children merely wearing these pjs ended up with flame retardants in their urine. And, according to such radical sources as the National Cancer Institute, Tris is a “potent” cause of cancer, 100 times more powerful than the carcinogens in cigarette smoke. (Source: Slow Death by Rubber Duck, at 102.) This is in my sofa and Ikea pillows, and likely the upholstered chair in my downstairs room from Ikea as well. Grr.

(Stapleton’s tests also showed that foam manufacturers who aren’t using Tris are likely using Firemaster 550, which has never been tested for safety. Firemaster 550, which is hard to say without sounding like you’re at a Monster Truck show, contains bromine, like PBDE. It therefore has a very manly name considering that it likely reduces sperm count, like a twisted new infertility comic book character.)

Out of the frying pan into the fire, so to speak. Maya plays all over our $%#! sofa all day long. Just today, I caught her licking it, which is gross for a whole number of reasons.

I’ll pick up tomorrow with part 2, in which I gnash my teeth into tiny nubs trying to find a decent replacement for the enormous, toxic, Ikea dust-magnet in my living room.

5 Myths About Toxics and What to Do About the Truth

Myth #1: There is a big laboratory in Washington which tests products for safety and bans unsafe stuff. After all, they wouldn’t be able to sell it if it wasn’t safe.

The sad, sad truth: There isn’t much oversight, really. A few government agencies (the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency) have responsibility over toys, food, and chemicals, respectively. But there are not many standards that apply before a product is sold.

Unlike for prescription drugs, where at least pharmaceutical companies have to make a showing that a drug works and is safe, for most things sold in the U.S. there is no pre-market obligation to show it’s safe and healthy to use.

On chemicals, the laws have not been updated since the 1970s, and were too weak to begin with. Laws like the Clean Water Act are showing their age – since, just for example, thanks to an enterprising high school student, we now know there are birth control pills, antibiotics and other trace pharmaceuticals in all of our water, and no real effort to get them out. Food oversight, as Obama remarked to hearty guffaws last year, is spread across a dizzying array of different agencies.

And the standards for what can be sold – much less what is considered safe – also vary widely. What with their lobbying and political power, and the revolving door, companies play the agencies like so many broken fiddles. And when Congress tries to step up, the industry swarms all over Capitol Hill like dollar bills over an investment banker.

In fact, the only place in across all of the law that imposes a general duty for manufacturers to care about what happens to consumers (called the “duty of care”) is when some injured family sues them for negligence. That’s why companies malign “trial lawyers” so much, and conservative courts and legislatures work to drastically curtail so-called “punitive” damages (that is, the amount of money the company should pay so that they won’t repeat the bad behavior, in addition to paying back the mere peanuts typically owed an injured person).

Other than taking them to court when you or someone you love has been hurt, which is, let’s face it, an important, though depressing and inadequate, after-the-fact way of paying medical bills following a human-caused tragedy, all we have are the government’s weak and inadequate rules. And there’s no laboratory in the sky there, believe me.

If you’re overwhelmed by this fact, be aware that both Europe and Canada have more protective rules on chemicals, and the European Union’s system does require a showing of safety for some chemicals, which is a major step in the right direction. (In fact, we now see companies selling stuff here in the U.S. that they can’t in Europe due to its stronger laws.) So there is a clear path forward, if we could only get our dunderheaded political system to unlock itself.

And small steps can make a huge difference. For some chemicals, Bisphenol-A, for example, we know that reducing exposure leads to a clear drop in the chemical’s presence in humans. So whenever we do take action, the effects will be immediate.

Myth #2: Pollution is out there, in the burning river. Or in the Superfund site, over in that other town.

Not true, and we should have asked Fido and Fluffy. The scope and intensity of indoor environmental pollution also has been a bit of a shock to researchers, who in 2008, for example, tested cats and dogs and found disturbing levels of flame retardants (23 times higher than people), teflon, and mercury.

So-called “body burden” studies of people measuring chemicals in their blood tell us that we have dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of chemicals in our bodies today that our great-grandparents did not.

In fact, we now know that man-made environments are frequently toxic. Just stop and think for a moment about the number of highly engineered products in your home: the upholstered furniture, paint, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, processed foods, mattresses, your dry-cleaning hang in the closet, all of the plastic containers and bottles, the electronics doused in flame retardants and filled with heavy metals. Now think about how much of that was in a home a scant one hundred years ago.

When NASA designed vehicles in which to take people into space back in the 1970s, it had to commission an engineer to work on innovative strategies to de-toxify that closed space, to ensure it was habitable due to the off-gassing of the materials used to build the spacecraft. Now, it’s clear that we’re all on that spacecraft.

The truth is that we’re in the midst of a massive experiment in genetics and chemistry. We are largely guessing about the effects of many of these chemicals on humans, as the science to tell us what we are doing to ourselves is still under development, and we have very little idea of how the chemicals do and could interact with each other in the environment.

In the face of such uncertainty, perhaps we’d all do better to open our windows a little more, consume a little less of what we don’t really need, and look for simpler ingredients in every category of thing we buy. And be very careful while pregnant.

And, in the face of such uncertainty, it’s really not too much to ask that chemicals that are not proven to be safe be kept out of the food supply, out of other consumer goods, and away from our families.

Myth #3: Only big doses of toxic chemicals can hurt us.

One stalling tactic of chemical companies is to argue about something called the “dose-response relationship.” What they mean is that studies of rats taking really high doses of some chemical or other do not accurately predict what will happen to humans who may have far smaller amounts of that chemical in their bodies.

Unfortunately for their theories, the science is often more complicated than that defensive poo-poohing of our legitimate concerns. What researchers have discovered very recently is that tiny amounts of certain types of chemicals – in particular, the ones that act like hormones in the human body (called “endocrine disruptors”) – are strongly linked to particular effectsBisphenol-A is one of these kinds of chemicals, as are pthalates, which are in a lot of plastics and fragrances.

In addition, low doses may cause the body to act differently than high doses.  And to complicate matters even further, small exposures to a chemical during a crucial stage of development, such as pregnancy, or even infancy (think: an 8-pound baby), may have impacts that forever impact health.

When we just put chemicals, willy-nilly, into the environment, we can’t control how and when a pregnant woman may be exposed. So instead we ask whether a chemical will impact a developing person in the same way as a mouse. Sorry, um, I have an issue with that. And with the dubious ethics of continued exposure in face of evidence of harm.

Of course, we should also care about how higher doses of chemicals will impact workers, like those in factories and nail salons, or even the visibly pregnant cashier I spoke to last week at my neighborhood café about handling hundreds of receipts and dollar bills per day covered in unbound BPA. They took her off the register after my conversation with her (and now she smiles at me when I come in), but what about the woman with that same job in the next town?

Myth #4: The really bad stuff stays where we put it.

You might think that flame retardants in the foam and fabric of your sofa would stay put – that is, unless your 18-month old rips a big hole in your cheapo leather chair, as mine did last week. Still, like you, we have no plans to eat the upholstery.

But body burden testing and tests of indoor air pollution and household dust reveal that flame retardants and other chemicals disintegrate and migrate from the inside of things to the floor. Once on the floor, it gets into the dust, the air and on our clothes. And into the bodies of pregnant women, where it impacts their thyroid.

In California, which has absurd rules that require nearly everything under the West Coast sun to have chemically toxic flame retardants in it (a rule brought back every year from the brink of extinction by a shadowy frontgroup for the chemical manufacturers), Mexican-American children have 7 times the amount of flame retardants in their bodies than do children in Mexico. Really.

Is it because Californian children eat the upholstery alongside their tofu? Um, doubtful. Its more likely from skin, butter, air, breastmilk, hand-to-mouth contact, and er, being a child.

And how did BPA get in the urine of 93 percent of all of us, anyhow? Were we all chewing on can liners and clear plastic water bottles? Well… maybe sometimes. The FDA may be a little confused on this point, but the National Institutes for Health seem to know the answer, and really, the notion that we can just tell something to stay put and hope that it listens to us is a fiction all of us parents have to get over pretty quickly. It’s long past time the regulators did as well.

Myth #5: Our cupboards are full of organic flax seed and fair trade, shade-grown coffee. We’ll be fine.

I’m actually a big believer in voting with your dollars, as you can afford to, for better toys, cleaners, furniture, and food. Our farmer’s market is a regular destination, and I ask questions about everything from environmental health to safety (see the Letters tab for a selection of my persnickety questions). And choosing organic food makes a big difference in whether you’re eating pesticides, as I’ll cover in a future post.

But, as I told the New York Times, we can’t shop our way to a solution here. I’ll be posting about all my difficulties in trying to eliminate as many toxins as we can, and how some can’t be avoided altogether. Even then, these kinds of steps only protect the families of the folks who have the time and money to work this hard, and most people’s children would remain exposed. So there’s a major social class and environmental justice problem.

When the issues are this complex, and this ubiquitous, and the public health costs this serious, that’s when government should step in and do its job. So far, the results of our current standards are not promising in the U.S. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to get the Congress to demand action on chemicals and unsafe products.

As of today, Congress may be about to punt on chemical reform. Again.  And you’ve read this far. So call or write them and tell them that’s not ok with you.

Just to be helpful, here is a Handy-Dandy Summary of the Myths and my (twisted) Version of the Facts on Chemicals:

 

Myth

 

Fact

 

1)    They can’t sell it unless it’s safe.

 

 

Puh-lease, girl.

 

 

 2)    Pollution is “out there.”

 

 

Chemicals are here, and in us.

 

3)    Only big doses count.

 

 

Little exposures matter more than we knew.

 

4)    The really bad stuff stays where we put it.

 

 

Stuff moves around: in the air, in dust, and in our food.

 

5) You’re really scaring me, so grab the credit card, and let’s shop our way out of this. Where do I start?

 

Put that credit card down. Pick up the phone instead and call Congress to ask them to reform the chemical safety laws that should protect everyone.