Fighting Flame Retardants

Consumer awareness and concern is growing about toxic flame retardants in family sofas and children’s products. Now the California-based organization Center for Environmental Health (CEH) is taking action. After a rash of articles revealed that flame retardants are added to nearly every foam-containing couch, in addition to baby products like crib mattresses, infant sleepers and changing pads, despite evidence of their toxicity, CEH became the first organization to take legal action. They are targeting retailers and product producers whose baby and children’s products have higher-than-allowed levels of Tris (1,3 dichloro-2-propyl ) phosphate (TDCPP), the chemical flame retardant associated with cancer and harm to the liver, kidney, brain and testes. In tests they conducted, CEH found 15 baby and children’s products with high levels of chlorinated Tris, including nap mats that are used in daycare centers, diaper changing pags, foam crib mattresses, bassinet pags and infant sleepers. They also found high levels of Tris in a glider (used for rocking babies), two ottomans and a mattress pad.

An expose about flame retardants in the Chicago Tribune in May 2012 reports that “Blood levels of certain widely used flame retardants doubled in adults every two to five years between 1970 and 2004. More recent studies show levels haven’t declined in the U.S. even though some of the chemicals have been pulled from the market. A typical American baby is born with the highest recorded concentrations of flame retardants among infants in the world.” The full list of products is available here.

“Infants and young children, who are at critical stages of their development, should not be sleeping on products doused with these ticking chemical time bombs,“ said Michael Green, executive director of the CEH, in a related press release. “It’s past time for companies to take steps towards eliminating these harmful chemicals from products for our children and families.”

A 1975 California law first required that flame retardants be added to foam-containing furniture and products; manufacturers, not wanting to produce separate products for California, have added these chemicals to all their products in the ensuing years. In theory, these products—at least the foam within these products—are supposed to withstand a small open flame (a match or cigarette lighter) for 12 seconds. But since couches and other products are made of more than just foam, in actual fire situations upholstery catches fire first and the foam quickly follows. In this case, the mass release of chemicals from the foam poses an additional health hazard to firefighters.

Studies have linked Tris exposure to many problematic health outcomes, including, as CEH notes, hormone disruption, developmental toxicity and cancer. They write: “Studies have shown that children have the highest levels of flame retardants in their bodies. One study published in Environmental Science & Technology in 2011 found that flame retardants like Tris were widespread in 101 commonly used baby products and concluded that “infants may receive greater exposure to TDCPP from these products compared to the average child of adult from upholstered furniture, all of which are higher than acceptable daily intake levels of TDCPP set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.”

Products tested by CEH in many cases contained more than double the levels found in that 2011 study. California’s Prop 65 law requires products with these chemicals to carry a warning label, but none did. Legal action being taken by CEH in part aims to improve labeling and ultimately prevent the addition of these unnecessary and harmful chemicals to baby and children’s products in the first place.