Study: Replacing Furniture and Foam Reduces Levels of Toxic Flame Retardants

SAN FRANCISCO – Americans have been exposed to potentially harmful flame retardant chemicals for decades. A new study done in Northern California shows that replacing a couch or even swapping out the foam in upholstered furniture reduces the levels of flame retardant chemicals in household dust.

The results were published in the journal Environment International. The study was conducted by researchers from the Environmental Working Group, the Silent Spring Institute, the Green Science Policy Institute, the University of California at Davis, and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

“This study provides additional evidence that the bans on flame retardants in upholstered furniture in California and other states are helping to reduce the use of flame retardants in the home,” said Dr. Tasha Stoiber, senior researcher at the EWG and co-study author. “Replacing a couch or sofa with furniture that does not contain flame retardants has a significant impact on people’s daily exposure to these chemicals.”

Exposure to flame retardant chemicals has been linked to serious health problems such as cancer, neurotoxicity, thyroid disease and decreased fertility, as well as deficits in motor skills, attention and IQ in children.

For the new study, two groups of households in Northern California replaced either a couch or the foam in their couch with items that did not contain flame retardants. Dust samples were collected in the room before the furniture was replaced and then again every six, 12 and 18 months after the replacement.

Concentrations of three types of flame retardant chemicals – three different polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs; three chlorinated tris; and an organophosphate – were found frequently in the homes of the participants. All but one of the measured flame retardants decreased in the houses after the furniture was replaced. Significant amounts of flame retardants in households decreased after entire furniture or foam was replaced, creating a healthier environment.

The study began in 2015, shortly after a new government regulation, Technical Bulletin 117-2013, came into effect. The new standards updated the flammability standard of upholstered furniture sold in California and reset the state’s “open flame” requirement to a “smolder” test that can be more easily met without the use of additional flame retardants. Furniture that was manufactured without flame retardants is now explicitly labeled.

In 1975, California passed a misguided furniture flammability ordinance that prompted furniture makers to use large amounts of flame retardant chemicals in the upholstery of polyurethane foam. Not wanting to make one set of products for the California market and another set for the rest of the country, manufacturers included flame retardants in foam products that are sold nationwide – furniture, carpet upholstery, baby products, and even the foam cubes for gymnastics pits.

One of the greatest dangers of some flame retardants is that they bioaccumulate in humans and cause long-term chronic health problems as these toxic chemicals build up in our bodies. However, their presence can decrease over time. “As soon as chemicals are banned, they slowly decrease in our homes and in our bodies,” said Stoiber. “For example, 10 years after PBDEs were launched, scientists found that breast milk levels decreased by 40 percent.”

Although many toxic flame retardant chemicals have been phased out in the United States, they have been replaced with poorly researched alternatives that could also harm health. “When manufacturers stop using flame retardants in a product like baby pajamas, they often switch to similar chemicals that scientists have not yet evaluated for safety reasons,” said Stoiber.

This is where flame retardants are likely to be found in our homes and in everyday life.

Flame retardants migrate from products into the air, house dust and the outside environment. You can inhale or ingest them, or absorb them through your skin.

Infants and young children are particularly at risk as they crawl and play on the floor where contaminated dust settles and often put their hands in their mouths. Children often have a higher percentage of flame retardants in their bodies because they swallow contaminated dust.

The EWG’s milestone studies helped lay the groundwork for regulatory changes that improve public health protection.

Like many toxic chemicals, flame retardants are loosely regulated. Manufacturers do not need to demonstrate that they are safe or that they will prevent products from going up in flames.

Although researchers have linked numerous flame retardants to serious health effects, federal regulators have never banned their use in any product.

The states led the charge of protecting citizens from the risks of flame retardants in consumer products. States like California have laws or regulations in place to address the health problems they raise.

On December 27, 2020, the Covid-19 Work and Work from Home Act was signed, mandating nationwide compliance with California’s flammability standard for upholstered furniture. The California smoldering test TB117-2013 is regulated by law across the country.

What you can do

Avoid flame retardants in new products. Buy those made without flame retardants – the easiest way to do this is to buy sofas, armchairs and children’s products. It’s harder for car seats and almost impossible when you’re buying a car or electronics.

Test your furniture. Most older sofas and armchairs contain tris or other worrying flame retardants. Duke University tests foam from your furniture for free. You can buy new flame retardant foam if you want to reupholster older furniture.

Take these simple precautions to minimize your exposure:

  • Do your homework before buying baby products. Although many baby products have been exempted from fire regulations that led companies to add chemical retardants, some manufacturers are still using them. Before you buy, find out if products contain fire retardant products and read our guide to fire retardant products for children.
  • Are you planning to reupholster your couch? Also replace the foam. If you plan on reupholstering your couch, consider replacing the old foam: it likely contains flame retardants. Ask your upholstery store for an unrestrained foam.
  • Check the foam padding for damage. Make sure the pillowcases are intact as exposed foam will help flame retardant chemicals escape faster. Items such as car seats and mattress pads should always be completely covered with protective fabric.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. These vacuums trap small particles more efficiently and are likely to remove more contaminants and allergens from your home. Highly efficient HEPA filter air purifiers can also reduce impurities that are bound to small particles.
  • Be careful when removing old carpets. The upholstery found in homes today likely contains flame retardants. Old carpet cushions can break if they are exposed and removed for replacement. Isolate the work area from the rest of your home.

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The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to lead healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique educational tools, the EWG promotes consumer choice and civic action. Visit www.ewg.org for more information.

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