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Couch Chemicals

Story at-a-glance -

  • Women with the highest concentrations of flame retardants known as PBDEs in their blood had an increased risk of thyroid disease compared to those with lower concentrations
  • Post-menopausal women may be particularly vulnerable to PBDE-induced thyroid effects because of low estrogen reserves
  • Eighty-five percent of couch foam samples tested contained toxic chemical flame retardants

How Your Couch Hurts Your Thyroid

June 07, 2016 | 46,031 views

By Dr. Mercola

Many couches in U.S. homes contain foam cushions that are comfortable to sit on but are hiding a dirty, dangerous secret. They're loaded with toxic flame-retardant chemicals. Such chemicals were added largely as the result of California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), which was passed in 1975.

It required furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small flame without igniting — a requirement manufacturers met by dousing furniture in flame retardants.

We're not talking about a quick dusting of the chemicals, either. Flame retardants may make up 11 percent of the foam's weight, and many couches contain 1 pound or more.1 The chemicals do not stay safely "sealed" inside the foam.

Rather, they can easily migrate from the cushions into your home's air and settle in household dust. The chemicals may be inhaled or transferred into your mouth via dust (the latter of which is especially common among infants and children).

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley revealed that both in utero and childhood exposures to flame-retardant chemicals known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) were associated with neurodevelopmental delays, including decreased attention, fine motor coordination, and cognition in school-age children.2

However, even adults are at risk. New research suggests PBDEs may be damaging to thyroid health, particularly for post-menopausal women.

Flame Retardants Linked to Thyroid Disease in Women

Estrogen levels regulate thyroid hormones, and PBDEs are known to disrupt estrogenic activity as well as thyroid levels. Past research has suggested, for instance, that PBDEs can lead to decreases in TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone).3

In the new study, researchers found women with the highest concentrations of PBDEs in their blood had an increased risk of thyroid disease compared to those with lower concentrations.4 The link was particularly strong among post-menopausal women.

The researchers theorized post-menopausal women may be particularly vulnerable to PBDE-induced thyroid effects because of low estrogen reserves. The researchers concluded:5

"Exposure to … [PBDEs] 47, 99, and 100 is associated with thyroid disease in a national sample of U.S. women, with greater effects observed post-menopause, suggesting that the disruption of thyroid signaling by PBDEs may be enhanced by the altered estrogen levels during menopause."

Your couch may indeed, be particularly problematic for your thyroid based on these results. Research published in Environmental Science & Technology revealed that 85 percent of couch foam samples tested contained chemical flame retardants.6

PBDEs' Toxic Legacy

PBDEs have been banned in the U.S. since 2004 (and in the state of California since 2003) due to health concerns. However, the chemicals are very slow to break down in the environment and accumulate in your body, leaving a toxic legacy behind.

Further, many products that contain PBDEs are still being used in U.S. homes. Polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses and pillows, are likely to contain PBDEs.

If you have any of these in your home, inspect them carefully and replace ripped covers and/or any foam that appears to be breaking down. Also avoid reupholstering furniture by yourself as the reupholstering process increases your risk of exposure.

Older carpet padding is another major source of PBDEs, so take precautions when removing old carpet. You'll want to isolate your work area from the rest of your house to avoid spreading it around, and use a HEPA-filter vacuum to clean up.

You probably also have older sources of the PBDEs known as Deca in your home as well, and these are so toxic they are banned in several states. Deca PBDEs can be found in electronics like TVs, cell phones, kitchen appliances, fans, toner cartridges and more.

Flame Retardants Make Fires Deadlier for Firefighters

The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) states that about 60 percent of firefighters die due to cancer. Research also shows that about 20 percent of firefighters develop cancer compared to a rate of about 8 percent for the general population.7

Firefighters are exposed to a number of cancer-causing toxins while on the job, flame retardants included. The chemicals have actually made fires even more dangerous than they were prior to their use.

An object treated with flame-retardant chemicals can still catch fire, and when it does, it will give off higher levels of toxic carbon monoxide, soot and smoke than an untreated object.

California female firefighters aged 40 to 50 are six times more likely to develop breast cancer than the national average, in part because of the high levels of dioxins and furans they're exposed to when flame-retardant chemicals burn.

Former veteran firefighter Eugene Hull of Columbus, Georgia told WTVM, "The fires of today are different than they were 30 years ago … it burns a lot hotter, a lot quicker and it gives off a lot more toxic smoke."8 Both Hull and his late brother, also a firefighter, developed cancer.

The cancer-firefighting link is so strong that 34 U.S. states have laws that make firefighters eligible for workers compensation if they develop cancer. Multiple firefighters groups are also backing bills that would ban flame-retardant chemicals in various states.

Clothing Chemicals Are Also a Concern

Chemicals are all around us, not only in your couch cushions but also in your clothing. There are more than 8,000 chemicals in the textile industry and no regulations about what types of chemicals may be added to clothing, including clothing for children.

Your skin can easily absorb chemicals it comes into contact with, so those on your clothes deserve careful consideration. Depending on what country your new clothes were manufactured in, they may contain multiple chemicals of concern.

Among them are azo-aniline dyes, which may cause skin reactions ranging from mild to severe.

If you're sensitive, such dyes may leave your skin red, itchy and dry, especially where the fabric rubs on your skin, such as at your waist, neck, armpits and thighs. The irritants can be mostly washed out, but it might take multiple washings to do so.

Formaldehyde resins are also used in clothing to cut down on wrinkling and mildew. Not only is formaldehyde a known carcinogen, but the resins have been linked to eczema and may cause your skin to become flaky or erupt in a rash.9

A report released by Greenpeace also found chemicals including PFCs, phthalates, cadmium and nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE) — a toxic endocrine-disrupting surfactant — in children's clothing.10 None of the chemicals are listed on labels.

Are Flame Retardants Lurking in Your Couch?

Duke University scientists will test a sample of your polyurethane foam, which is commonly used in upholstered furniture, padded chairs, car seats and more. All you need to remove is a sample the size of a marble, and it will be tested for the presence of seven common flame retardants.

If you're not sure whether your couch contains these chemicals, this is a simple way to find out. Here's how it works:

1. Complete an electronic sample request to generate your Sample ID Number

2. Prepare your sample

  • Cut a piece of foam, 1 cubic centimeter in size (a little bigger than the size of a marble).
  • Wrap the foam in aluminum foil.
  • Place each foam sample in its own re-sealable sandwich bag; be sure to completely seal the bag.
  • Attach or write the Sample ID Number on the re-sealable sandwich bag.

3. Enclose the following in a box or envelope:

  • Foam sample with Sample ID Number written on bag (Step 2)
  • Copy of confirmation email (Step 1)

Mail to:

Gretchen Kroeger
Box 90328 - LSRC
Duke University
Durham, NC 27708

The research lab only has the capacity to analyze 50 samples per month, and they close submissions once the quota is reached. Before sending in your sample, check with the Duke University Superfund Research Center's Submit a Sample website to see if they're still accepting submissions (for best results, check in on the first of the month).

How to Reduce Your Exposure to Flame Retardants

Flame retardants are so widely used that it's difficult to avoid them completely. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure, including these tips from the Green Science Policy Institute:

Avoid upholstered furniture with the TB117 label. If the label states, "This article meets the flammability requirements of California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation Technical Bulletin 117 … " it most likely contains flame retardants. However, even upholstered furniture that's unlabeled may contain flame retardants.

Furniture products filled with cotton, wool or polyester tend to be safer than chemical-treated foam; some products also state that they are "flame-retardant free." Organic wool (100 percent) is naturally flame-resistant.

Avoid baby products with foam. Nursing pillows, highchairs, strollers and other products containing polyurethane foam most likely contain flame retardants.

Avoid foam carpet padding. If possible, minimize the use of foam carpet padding, which often contains flame retardants. If removing carpeting, take precautions to avoid exposures.

PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often. Duke researchers uncovered that children who wash their hands at least five times a day have 30  to 50 percent lower levels of flame retardants on their hands than children who wash their hands less frequently,11 adding credence to the theory that household dust (which then coats your hands) may be a primary route of exposure to these (and other) toxic chemicals.

Are You Struggling With Thyroid Disease?

There's accumulating evidence that environmental toxins, including flame retardants, may play a role in thyroid disease. An estimated 1 in 8 women aged 35 to 65 have some form of thyroid disease — underactive thyroid being the most common.12

If your thyroid dysfunction is due to environmental toxins, detoxification and changing your lifestyle to avoid hormone-disrupting chemicals may be key components of successful intervention. I suggest working with a holistic health care provider who is knowledgeable about thyroid health and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. In addition, you can find out more about how to diagnose and treat thyroid disease here.

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