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:

What Does “Green” Really Mean to You? Getting Environmental Health versus Sustainability Sorted Out

A still from the "Sad Kermit" video

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not easy being “green.” In fact, much of the time it’s not even clear what it means.

What we typically label “green-washing,” or the marketing of eco-high points without mention of the ecological costs, is a real problem. One aspect of this problem is that it’s often difficult to tell, when you are choosing a product, whether it’s “green” because it’s safer or healthier to consume, or because less junk was produced or used in getting it to you in the first place.

For a concrete example of this, I constantly see items marketed as “green” – say, the furniture from West Elm made with some percentage of soy foam – that nonetheless is full of toxic chemicals, such as the flame retardants I’ve been blogging about somewhat obsessively. It’s also not helpful that words like “natural,” “non-toxic,” or even “organic” outside the context of food, have very little meaning.

And then there’s the debate in the comments of that recent post on the Sofa Saga, in which an eco-textiles expert takes issue, rightly in many ways, with the green claims being made about some of the furniture. Her concern is for sustainability and to reduce overall pollution of the environment from textiles, as far as I can tell. Yet I began my sofa quest from the simpler place of merely trying to get toxics out of my house (a task which turned out not to be at all simple, sadly).

So there’s a definitional problem that flows both ways. But this is not an unimportant distinction. If we want consumers to care about the impact of their choices on either their own health or the environment, we could start by clarifying our terms.

While sometimes the benefits might be related, the motivations in these two areas are not the same, from a practical or psychological perspective. My desire to protect my child from toxics, at least for me, comes from a place where I’m basically kinda’ offended that some company wants to poison her. I just want to get that possibility to zero, and I’ll do a lot to make that happen.  (Including ordering healthier products shipped in individual boxes to my house, carbon miles, packaging and all. No one talks about these trade-offs!)

On the other hand, while I do feel deeply committed to whatever I can do to improve the health of the planet, on that scale, I’m also part of systems that do a lot of harm all the time, including everything from the electricity production that lights my house using coal-fired power plants, to, more directly, when I put gas in my car. Motivating real and significant change on these behaviors is far harder, in many cases anyway, and is more about my sense of wanting to do right by the earth than the highly personal health concerns that affect my direct actions in the first category.

Of course, the planet does provide a handy feedback loop, in that the stuff we use ends up in the environment eventually. But I would submit that this kind of secondary effect is merely a nice outcome – the icing on my organic cake – for choosing healthier products. It is a weak force when compared to the incentive provided by health or safety issues that far more directly impact what’s in my family’s life.

In either case, eco-products mostly come at a premium, and “greener” items tend to be green in a number of ways, all of which raise the price. If I’m paying more for better health for my family, I’d like to know that. Similarly, if I’m paying more as an investment in a cleaner environment for all of us, including my family, I’d like to know that too. Having a transparent range of options and a sense of their impact would make a big difference.

Because these triggers for change are so different, and imply very different behaviors and tolerance of costs, in my view, the consistent confusion in messages we receive on what “green” means –  i.e.,, whether it should be judged on grounds of environmental health or environmental sustainability, or a mix of both – actually demotivates change by potentially willing consumers, and obfuscates choices on price and other trade-offs.

It also creates a space where consumers are told they are helping to solve a problem by going “green” in shopping for an item with some improvement in features, without the full set of possible choices on either health or environmental grounds – choices the company has made – being clear.

Questions like – How green (or non-toxic) is it? In what ways? And how green (or non-toxic) could it be? – are rarely answered with any honesty. (For some recent evidence on this, see organic tomato company Muir Glen’s weasel-y response on Facebook, banished from their front page, when I asked about the new BPA-free materials in their can linings.)

When we later learn what was missing from the full picture, it can create cynicism, and the sense that, whatever we’re told, it’s not enough to make a truly informed decision. With so many choices to make in a day, and so little time to make them, most folks just make a call and move on. What else could they do, really?

The result is that the motivators on health are lumped in with vaguer concerns, and toxics continue being distributed, even through “eco” products. Savvy consumers have to become even savvier label-scanners, and the few hyper-researched worrywarts like me who do weed out stuff on health grounds, as we can, must peer through a thick haze of greenish claims to figure out what’s likely to be toxic or not, and better for the planet or not.

At a minimum, this is deeply annoying. But at worst, we’re blowing a chance to bring matters home that could be much more of a driver for consumer decisions. We could start to address this by putting companies – especially ones making claims to do better – through a much more exacting set of questions about what’s in stuff and why.

So, please join me in my persnickety questions and letters, and let me know what you find out. And what you can’t seem to get a straight answer about, even when you ask a highly specific question. I’ll post it all – the pursuit, the brush-offs and obfuscations, and the thrill of the chase. Or at least the exchange of impertinent questions and dodges.

If we could start holding companies far more accountable for their bogus “green” claims, and sorting out the ones who are willing to be accountable from those that clearly don’t want to be on health matters, that would be a decent start on addressing a few aspects of this problem. “Green” claims, at a minimum, should not shield companies from closer inquiries on the safety of their contents. (And if you’d prefer to work the reverse angle — figuring out sustainability issues for companies making health claims, that would be interesting too.)

Even if nothing else, please help me get real answers from Muir Glen, before they get away with covering over the information we deserve on BPA substitutes with a gloppy dollop of organic tomato sauce.

Tomato Twins

Tomato Twins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)