Your couch cushions, your child’s car seat, your carpeting, and your mattress all have a toxic secret in common.
They probably contain flame-retardant chemicals that have been linked to serious health risks like cancer, birth defects, neurodevelopmental delays in children, and more.
How these chemicals have grown to become so ubiquitous is a story of great deception, power and greed, with the chemical industry and Big Tobacco at the helm. As reported in an investigative series “Playing With Fire” by the Chicago Tribune:1
“The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world. The toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home, packed into couches, chairs and many other products.
Two powerful industries — Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers — waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of these chemicals, which don’t even work as promised.”
HBO recently aired a documentary, Toxic Hot Seat, which is based on the Chicago Tribune’s comprehensive investigation. You can watch the trailer above. The film highlights some of the most disturbing facts about flame-retardant chemicals, which were summed up by Rodale News.2 As you read through them, you’ll see how the use of flame-retardant chemicals is easily among the major toxic cover-ups in the US.
1. Studies Have Proven Their Harm
It’s estimated that 90 percent of Americans have some level of flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies, and the chemicals are also known to accumulate in breast milk.
This alone is highly disturbing because many studies have linked them to human health risks including infertility, birth defects, lower IQ scores, behavioral problems in children, and liver, kidney, testicular, and breast cancers.
2. Flame Retardants Produce More Toxic Smoke
If an object doused in flame retardants catches fire (yes, they can still catch fire), it gives off higher levels of carbon monoxide, soot, and smoke than untreated objects. Ironically, these three things are more likely to kill a person in a fire than burns, which means flame-retardant chemicals may actually make fires more deadly.
Flame-retardant chemicals belong to the same class of chemicals as DDT and PCBs (organohalogens), and like the former, they, too, build up in the environment. These chemicals also react with other toxins as they burn to produce cancer-causing dioxins and furans.
3. Banned from Children’s Pajamas But Still Widely Used in Furniture and Baby Products
A flame-retardant chemical known as chlorinated tris (TDCPP) was removed from children's pajamas in the 1970s amid concerns that it may cause cancer, but now it’s a ubiquitous addition to couch cushions across the United States.
It can easily migrate from the foam and into your household dust, which children often pick up on their hands and transfer into their mouths. Tris is actually the most commonly used flame retardant in the US today, used in nap mats, car seats, strollers, nursing pillows, furniture, and more.
4. Female Fire Fighters in California Have Six Times More Breast Cancer
Female firefighters aged 40 to 50 are six times more likely to develop breast cancer than the national average, likely due to California’s early use of flame-retardant chemicals. Firefighters of both genders also have higher rates of cancer, in part because of the high levels of dioxins and furans they’re exposed to when flame-retardant chemicals burn.
According to one firefighter in the HBO documentary:3 “It's Love Canal, and it's on fire… These fires that we're going to now are an absolute toxic soup.”
5. Flame-Retardant Chemicals Provide No Benefit for People
The chemical industry claims that fire-retardant furniture increases escape time in a fire by 15-fold. In reality, this claim came from a study using powerful, NASA-style flame retardants, which did give an extra 15 seconds of escape time.
This is not the same type of chemical used in most furniture, and government and independent studies show that the most widely used flame-retardant chemicals provide no benefit for people while increasing the amounts of toxic chemicals in smoke.
Drops in fire-related deaths in recent decades are not related to the use of flame-retardant chemicals, but instead are due to newer construction codes, sprinkler systems, fire alarms, and self-extinguishing cigarettes.
6. Big Tobacco Was Instrumental in the Spread of Flame-Retardant Chemicals
Flame-retardant chemicals were developed in the 1970s, when 40 percent of Americans smoked and cigarettes were a major cause of fires. The tobacco industry, under increasing pressure to make fire-safe cigarettes, resisted the push for self-extinguishing cigarettes and instead created a fake front group called the National Association of State Fire Marshals. The group pushed for federal standards for fire-retardant furniture…
7. California’s Misguided Fire Safety Law Led to Countrywide Use of These Toxic Chemicals
In 1975, California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) was passed. It requires furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small flame without igniting. Because of California's economic importance, the requirement has essentially become a national standard, with manufacturers dousing their furniture with the chemicals whether they're going to be sold in California or elsewhere in the States. As reported by Rodale News:
“Sadly, though the original author of TB117 had specifically included language requiring that any chemical used to make furniture fire resistant be safe for human health, politicians removed that language before the law went into effect.”
8. The Chemical Industry Has Spent Millions to Keep TB117 in Place
Numerous bills in California have been introduced that would update TB117 to state that toxic chemicals were no longer required for furniture, but the deep-pocketed chemical industry has defeated them each time. The industry even went so far as to hire Dr. David Heimback, a burn expert and star witness for the manufacturers of flame retardants, told the tragic story of a 7-week-old baby who was burned in a fire and died as a result, three weeks later, after suffering immensely. The fire was said to have been started by a candle that ignited a pillow that lacked flame retardant chemicals, where the baby lay.
The story was heard by California lawmakers, who were deciding on a bill that could have reduced the use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture. The problem, as we detailed in a previous article, was that the entire story was a clever hoax, a complete fabrication, from beginning to end!
Given the outdated regulations in place about the use of flame-retardant chemicals in consumer products, it’s quite difficult to avoid these toxic chemicals because of their abundant use in household goods and even in the foam insulation used in your walls. Research published in Environmental Science & Technology revealed that 85 percent of couch foam samples tested contained chemical flame retardants.4 The samples came from more than 100 couches purchased from 1985 to 2010.
As of July 1, 2007, all US mattresses are required to be highly flame retardant, to the extent that they won't catch on fire if exposed to a blowtorch. This means that the manufacturers are dousing them with highly toxic flame-retardant chemicals, which do NOT have to be disclosed in any way. This is probably the most important piece of furniture you want to get right, as you are spending about one-third of your life on it.
However, you can have a licensed health care provider write you a prescription for a chemical-free mattress, which can then be ordered without flame retardants from certain retailers. You can also find certain natural mattresses on the market that don’t contain them. For instance, our wool mattress and flame-retardant bedding does not have chemicals added because wool is a natural flame retardant.
Given the blatant dangers posed by flame retardants, in late November 2013 California’s governor ordered that TB117 be rewritten to ensure fire safety without the use of these chemicals. Starting in January 2014, furniture manufacturers will begin producing furniture that’s not required to use flame-retardant chemicals, and full compliance is expected by January 2015.
Unfortunately, the updated law only states that the chemicals are no longer required; it doesn’t ban them outright. This means that some companies may continue to use them, and if you’re in the market for new furniture, you’ll need to ask for that made without flame-retardant chemicals.