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Saying Goodbye to Flame Retardants

03 Oct 2014  |   Mark Sheridan

Tags: Toxics

For decades, the furniture in our homes, including the couches most of us sit on every day, has been loaded with toxic flame retardants. Although Congress has yet to reform our nation’s broken chemical law, the Toxic Substances Control Act, actions by states and companies and the continued push by environmental, health, labor, and other organizations has led to exciting changes that will reduce our exposure to harmful flame retardants. 

The use of flame retardants in furniture began with a rather obscure California regulation (TB 117) in 1975 that essentially required manufacturers to load foam cushions inside upholstered furniture with as much as 2 pounds of flame retardant chemicals. As a result, an estimated 80 percent of furniture today contains these chemicals. Use of flame retardants in furniture has continued since then despite the fact that numerous studies have demonstrated they are dangerous to our health and are actually ineffective at reducing the risk of fire. 

Flame retardants pose significant health risks, including learning and behavioral problems, infertility, and cancer, and pregnant women and young children are especially vulnerable. These harmful chemicals can migrate out of furniture and accumulate in house dust and indoor air, and can be ingested, for example, by any toddler playing on the floor or child sitting on the couch. An increased rate of cancer in firefighters has also been attributed to the widespread use of flame retardants in the products in our homes, which are released into the air during house fires. 

Luckily, an increasing public spotlight on the dangers of flame retardants, beginning with the Chicago Tribune’s series “Playing with Fire” and HBO’s documentary Toxic Hot Seat as well as numerous news reports, scientific studies, and NGO publications, have been widely successful in building public awareness and political mobilization on the issue. Last November, California Governor Jerry Brown established new standards for furniture that do not require the use of toxic flame retardants, with a requirement that manufacturers comply by January 1, 2015. At the national level, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently introduced legislation that would ban 10 toxic flame retardants from furniture and children’s products. 

In response to the new California standard and increased consumer demand for safer products, more mainstream businesses are beginning to offer safer options. Crate and Barrel and La-Z-Boy currently sell flame retardant-free furniture and Ikea and Pottery Barn will do so at the beginning of 2015. The Natural Resources Defense Council has put together a useful guide on where to purchase flame retardant-free furniture and which retailers are lagging behind.  

It is long past time that we remove these toxic, harmful chemicals with little to no safety benefit from our furniture. Thankfully the tide is turning and more flame retardant-free options will be available to the average American family soon. This progress is a testament to what happens when ordinary citizens demand change and the public, scientists, companies, and elected officials come together to protect our health. 

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