Casey Radford earned a B.S. in atmospheric sciences and meteorology at North Carolina State University. ESG is sad to see Casey go but we wish her well as she and her husband relocate to Asheville NC.
Could there be toxic chemicals in your living room furniture? Probably. A study published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal by Duke University and Boston University professionals last month investigated foam samples from 102 residential couches and found that most contained hazardous flame retardant chemicals.
The reason for the presence of these chemicals is understandable. Instituted by the state of California in 1975, Technical Bulletin 117 requires that any polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture be able to withstand flames at least 12 seconds without igniting. This was an important rule, implemented to prevent house fires that begin with small flames, such as candles and matches. We can all appreciate that standard, but not necessarily the way it has been met.
There are currently no regulations on how furniture manufacturers make their products flame-resistant. The unfortunate truth is that it’s good business to find the cheapest way possible, which in this case is to soak the foam in a flame retardant chemical before upholstering.
Out of these 102 couches, 85% contained toxic chemicals used as flame retardants. TDCPP, or chlorinated Tris, was detected the most. This chemical was banned in the 1970’s from being used in children’s pajamas after chlorinated Tris was found to be a carcinogen.
Another commonly found chemical was PentaBDE. The United States began phasing out PentaBDE in 2005 after studies showed this chemical affected human health by delaying physical development, causing poorer attention and lower IQ, and delaying pregnancy among other health effects.
Even though these chemicals are supposedly no longer in use, they are far from gone in our lives. By being used as a flame retardant material in our furniture, these chemicals are exposed to us by getting into house dust, direct contact, as well as hand-to-mouth contact. Another study by professionals of the Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts and the Toxicological Centre in Belgium investigated the presence of flame retardants in house dust of California homes, and found more than 40 flame retardants in the samples taken. Again, TDCPP was found most frequently.
The risk of flame retardant chemicals is not only limited to the west coast. While TB 117 is only enforced in the state of California, it seems the goal of flame-resistant foam is used in most places. The study found that more than 90% of the couches bought in the past seven years outside of California still contained flame retardant chemicals. This was regardless of whether they had the TB117 label or not.
It is also important to note that while this study only focused on couches, the risk of chemicals being used to uphold the TB117 standard is present in all upholstered furniture, including chairs and car seats.
Fortunately, there is a brighter future for this issue. California is currently taking the steps necessary to update TB117. If everything goes according to plan, we can easily purchase furniture free of toxic chemicals by mid-2013.
Furniture isn’t something we turn over frequently, so it is beneficial to know ways of preventing overexposure to the chemicals that are already present in your home. You can reduce your exposure by frequent vacuuming and mopping to avoid too much dust build up. When you dust furnishings, use a wet cloth or one made of microfiber to prevent making the dust airborne. Also, since hand-to-mouth contact is an easy way to expose your body to the chemicals, wash your hands frequently.
For more information, you can read the study for the Environmental Science and Technology Journal at http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es303471d
Also read a Senior Health Scientist and mother Sarah Janssen’s blog post of her experience as her couch was used in the study and what the results meant for her http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/sjanssen/my_toxic_couch.html