By Dr. Mercola
While odorless, flame retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, are far from innocuous. They were recently identified as one of 17 "high priority" chemical groups that should be avoided to reduce your breast cancer risk,1 for instance.
Previous studies have shown that an estimated 90 percent of Americans already have flame-retardant chemicals in their bodies, making this an issue well worth considering—especially if you have young children, or are of child-bearing age.
Worse yet, recent tests2 have revealed that many Americans have no less than six different types of toxic flame retardants in their system.
The presence of chlorinated tris (TDCIPP) was particularly surprising, as this chemical was phased out of children's pajamas in the 1970s. As reported by Medicine Net:3
"The researchers tested urine samples from California residents and found detectable levels of a rarely studied group of flame retardants known as phosphates, and one -- tris-(2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP) -- has never been seen in Americans before.
TCEP, a known carcinogen that can also damage people's nervous and reproductive systems, was detected in 75 percent of the people tested..."
Are You Sitting on Toxic Furniture?
Buying a new couch for your home is exciting, but once it's delivered and in your family room, you might notice a strong chemical scent wafting from the cushions, especially if they're made of polyurethane foam.
Your cozy couch cushions are likely to be doused in chemicals by the manufacturer. The ones that give off the "chemical" scent are probably toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) while another equally (if not more so) dangerous class of chemicals – flame retardants – have no smell at all.
Duke University has an excellent program as part of their Superfund Research Center that allows you to send in a sample of foam and have it tested for flame retardants… for free! It's virtually the only way for the average person to find out what's really lurking in their couch cushions (see the details below)…
How Flame Retardants Came to Reside in Your Couch (and in Many Other Household Items)
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, and in 1975 California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) was passed. It required 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.
Since then, their use has skyrocketed. Research published in Environmental Science & Technology revealed that 85 percent of couch foam samples tested contained chemical flame retardants.4 And 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.
Aside from couches and mattresses, such chemicals were detected in 60 percent of car seats tested by The Ecology Center5 while a separate study in Environmental Science & Technology also detected flame-retardant chemicals in 80 percent of the following children's products tested:6
Nursing pillows Baby carriers Car seats Changing table pads High chairs Strollers Bassinets Portable cribs Walkers Baby tub inserts and bath slings Glider rockers Sleeping wedges
Does Your Couch Contain Flame Retardants? Get It Tested for FREE
Are you wondering if your couch (or another household item) contains flame retardants? Scientists at Duke University's Superfund Research Center will tell you. Only polyurethane foam can be tested, but this 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 Duke will accept up to five individual samples per household. Each will be tested for the presence of seven common flame retardants. 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. Mail it in
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)
Box 90328 - LSRC
Durham, NC 27708
As Linda Birnbaum, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which funds the lab, told The Atlantic:7
"Saying to anyone, 'Send me your sample and I'll tell you what it is'—I don't know of anyone else who does it… If you're dealing with something like a mattress or a camping tent or a TV, you're not told what it's made of
…And I think that many consumers would like to be able have that information readily available, and then they can make their own decision [on] whether this is something that they want."
Duke University Discovers Unidentified Flame Retardant
By offering free flame-retardant testing to Americans, Duke's lab, which is supervised by environmental chemist Heather Stapleton, has received an ongoing stream of valuable information about the types of chemicals found in Americans' homes.
They've even recently uncovered a flame retardant that is not yet identified in the academic literature. The chemical is a chlorinated organophosphate similar to TDCPP, buts its health effects are unknown. TDCPP was removed from children's pajamas in the 1970s amid concerns that it may cause cancer, only to later become a ubiquitous addition to couch cushions across the US.
Stapleton and colleagues have been behind some of the most revealing flame-retardant studies to date. For instance, they recently found traces (and more) of TDCPP in every study participant tested.
Aside from that, the researchers found the average concentration in children was close to five times that of their moms.8 High levels of flame-retardant chemicals used to make FireMaster flame-retardant products were also detected (Firemaster 550 has been used to replace two other PBDEs that were removed from the market9).
In a separate study, the Duke researchers uncovered that children who wash their hands at least five times a day have 30 percent to 50 percent lower levels of flame retardants on their hands than children who wash their hands less frequently,10 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.
Health Risks of Flame Retardants Revealed
PBDEs resemble the molecular structure of PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, and impaired fetal brain development. Like PCBs, even though certain PBDEs have been banned in some US states and the European Union, they persist in the environment and accumulate in your body – and can still exist in products imported from other countries.
Higher exposures to PBDEs have been linked to decreased fertility,11 which could be in part because the chemicals may mimic your thyroid hormones. Previous research has suggested PBDEs can lead to decreases in TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone).12 When present with normal T4 levels, low TSH is typically a sign that you're developing hyperthyroidism, which can have significant ramifications both for you and your unborn child if you're pregnant.
As for cancer, one type of PBDE (decaBDE) is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while the others remain largely untested. A study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley also revealed that both in utero and childhood PBDE exposures were associated with neurodevelopmental delays, including poorer attention, fine motor coordination, and cognition in school-age children.13 Earlier this year, yet another study also found that children whose mothers were exposed to flame retardant chemicals during pregnancy have lower IQ and are more prone to hyperactivity disorders.14
Adding Fuel to the Fire: Flame Retardants Are Ineffective
In the CNN video above, you can see a comparison of two burning chairs, one treated with flame-retardant chemicals and one without. In less than a minute, the differences in visible flames between the two chairs are minimal. Inez Tenenbaum, chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, testified before the Senate that:
"The fire-retardant foams did not offer a practically significant greater level of open flame safety than the untreated foams."
Andrew Mcguire of the Trauma Foundation also reported to CNN that flame retardants put into furniture foam are not effective because the foam is not ignited by a match, open flame, or cigarette. Instead, it's the fabric that ignites first, and the flames from the burning fabric overwhelm the flame-retardant chemicals.15 Research has also shown that certain flame-retardant chemicals (halogen-based flame retardants) actually increase the amounts of toxic carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide gas released into the air during a fire.16 Inhalation of these gasses, not burns, is actually the leading cause of death in fires!
New Regulations May Help Reduce the Use of Toxic Flame Retardants
The chemical industry has spent millions to keep California's TB117 in place, but as of January 1, 2014, new regulations (TB-117-2013) kicked into effect that will hopefully make toxic flame retardants less prominent in the average home. As reported by Scientific American:17
"The change does not prevent manufacturers from using flame retardants, but it does make it feasible to avoid their use while still clearing regulations. The new requirements state that upholstered furniture sold in the state must not continue to 'smolder' some 45 minutes after a lit cigarette is placed on it—protecting against a cigarette carelessly dropped on a couch rather than a lit candle.
Manufacturers can meet the requirement without the use of fire retardants, by using fabrics that better withstand such exposures or by lining furniture with a fire barrier such as polyester batting. Furniture manufacturers nation-wide have ensured that their wares met the stringent California flammability standards for the past few decades, so the new requirements are expected to have ripple effects across the industry that will trigger a reduction in the use of flame retardant in our home furnishings."
In early January, Chemtura Corp., a leading manufacturer of flame-retardant chemicals, filed a lawsuit18 against California, challenging the regulatory changes. The trial began in August 2014 in Sacramento Superior court, but fortunately the Superior Court Judge rejected Chemtura's bid.19 In California, furnishings that are in compliance with the new flammability standards will carry a "TB 117-2013" tag indicating its compliance. Look for this tag, or ask the retailer whether a particular piece contains flame-retardant chemicals.
You Can Help Limit Your Exposure to Flame Retardants
Until these chemicals are removed from use entirely, tips you can use to reduce your exposure to PBDEs around your home include:20
- Be especially careful with polyurethane foam products manufactured prior to 2005, such as upholstered furniture, mattresses, and pillows, as these are most 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. It's a good idea to wash your hands after handling such items, especially before eating, and at the very least be sure you don't let infants mouth any of these items (like your TV remote control or cell phone).
- As you replace PBDE-containing items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, and cotton.
- Look for organic and "green" building materials, carpeting, baby items, mattresses, and upholstery, which will be free from these toxic chemicals and help reduce your overall exposure. 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."
- PBDEs are often found in household dust, so clean up with a HEPA-filter vacuum and/or a wet mop often.
Can You Find a Toxin-Free Mattress or Couch?
It's possible if you look for those made of natural materials and made by environmentally conscious manufacturers. You should take special precaution with your mattress, however, since you spend a large amount of your life sleeping on it. Mattress manufacturers are not required to label or disclose which chemicals their mattresses contain. They may even claim that their mattresses are safe, when in reality they are not. To avoid this toxic exposure, I recommend looking for a mattress made of:
- 100% organic wool, which is naturally flame-resistant. Even if you hold a match to wool, it will self-extinguish in moments. This is why I use one of our wool mattresses, as it's free of these dangerous fire retardants like PBDE
- 100% organic cotton or flannel also tends to be flame-resistant
- Kevlar fibers, the material they make bulletproof vests out of, which is sufficient to pass the fire safety standards. Stearns and Foster is one brand that sells this type of mattress
If in doubt, remember you can have a sample of polyurethane foam cushions tested for free to be sure. This is particularly useful for items you already have around your home, as it will help you determine which harmful products need replacing.