Changing Course on Flame Retardants

n couchfurniture

For the first time in nearly 40 years, Americans may no longer have to worry whether they are buying a product containing dangerous flame retardant chemicals. On June 18, California Governor Jerry Brown announced he will be taking significant strides toward eliminating the persistent, bio-accumulative chemicals while still continuing to ensure fire safety through various nontoxic options.

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

Since 1975, the California law “Technical Bulletin 117” (TB 117) has required foams used in upholstery, like couch cushions, carpet padding and baby car seats, to contain flame retardant chemicals. To abide by the legislation, upholstery manufacturers simply put the chemicals in all of their products, causing flame retardant exposure to become widespread across the U.S. over the past few decades. Today, millions of pounds of flame retardants are used annually thanks to TB 117 and just one large sofa can be sold with two pounds of these chemicals in its cushions.

Despite how well-intentioned the standard may have originally seemed, extensive scientific analyses have since linked flame retardants to numerous serious health hazards, including cancer, autism, lowered IQ, impaired fertility, obesity and thyroid dysfunction. Today, scientists know that some flame retardants escape from household products and settle in dust, which is why toddlers, who play on the floor and put things in their mouths, generally have far higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than their parents. A 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group found toddlers had three times the level of flame retardant chemicals in their bodies as their parents, with California children having the highest levels. And researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found significant associations between flame retardant levels in the blood of California women and reduced fertility, which they believe may result from alterations in thyroid hormone levels after exposure to these chemicals.

Dogs, cats and other pets with indoor lifestyles have also been shown to accumulate these chemicals. Researchers at Indiana University found flame retardants in the blood of pet dogs at levels five to ten times higher than those typically found in humans—and a separate study found cats with exposures at levels 100 times greater than humans. In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed flame retardants’ link to potentially-fatal hyperthyroidism in cats.

“Feline hyperthyroidism…was never reported [35 years ago, but] now it is very common,” study co-author Linda Birnbaum, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory Experimental Toxicology Division, told Environmental Science & Technology when their paper validating the link was first published.

Flame retardants also seep into waterways, disrupting fish hormones, and have even been showing up in high levels in several foods, like butter and cold cuts. This vast toxic legacy makes it all the more disturbing that the chemicals have recently been deemed ineffective at controlling fires. In 2009, federal scientists set a small flame to a pair of upholstered chairs in a government testing lab—one with a flame retardant in the foam and one without—and found both chairs burned similarly and were engulfed in flames within four minutes.

“We did not find flame retardants in foam to provide any significant protection,” said Dale Ray, a top official with the Consumer Product Safety Commission who oversaw the 2009 tests. Moreover, the amount of smoke from both chair fires was similar, Ray said, noting that most fire victims die of smoke inhalation, not the flames.

In fact, flame retardants may pose more harm than good. According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, firefighters have a significantly elevated risk of developing cancer due to the inhalation of toxic chemicals like flame retardants at the scene of a fire. “The idea that the main argument for flame retardants is to promote fire safety, and that in reality these toxic chemicals make it so that firefighters have another cause of death to worry about in the workplace is unthinkable to me,” said Corrie Smith of the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit that aims to protect people from toxic chemicals and promotes business products and practices that are safe for public health and the environment.

Throughout the remainder of the year, Governor Brown’s overhaul will battle against a well-funded flame retardant industry, which over the past decade has spent tens of millions to kill numerous other regulatory bills. In the meantime, vacuuming, mopping and washing one’s hands often—and purchasing furniture and baby items from health-conscious companies that do not add flame retardants to their products—can help to reduce exposures.