Home sweet home? Flame retardants in your home can harm you

By Abigail Fredenburg, PhD, Caitlin Kennedy, PhD, Anna Mazzucco, PhD
Updated 2016

Could your couch increase your chances of getting cancer? Possibly. Studies show that every day we are exposed to chemicals that were intended to protect us from household fires but are hazardous to our health.1 2 Toxic flame retardants are used in upholstered furniture such as couches, chairs, and mattresses, as well as in drapery and carpets. They are even in our televisions and plastic-cased electronics. Flame retardants have also been found in foam in baby products such as baby carriers, high chairs, strollers, and nursing pillows.3

Who invited cancer-causing chemicals into our homes?

At one time, It made sense to require flame retardants that would prevent or slow the spread of fire, but we now know those same chemicals can cause cancer. They also can affect children’s growth and brain development.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Services, explains that new research used 3-D imaging to demonstrate how synthetic flame retardants “interfere with the body’s natural hormones.”4 When chemicals affect adult hormone levels, they can be very harmful, such as reducing fertility or harming a developing fetus.

Other research shows how this can affect children’s learning. University of Cincinnati’s Dr. Aimin Chen and colleagues studied pregnant women and their children to determine the effect of prenatal exposure on learning and behavior. The researchers measured the amount of common flame retardants in 301 pregnant women at 16 weeks of pregnancy and tested their children during their first 5 years of life. Pregnant women with higher levels of flame retardants had children who tended to have more learning problems at ages 2, 3, 4, and 5 years, and the children also were more likely to be hyperactive.5

Another important way that young children are exposed to flame retardant chemicals is through their crib mattresses. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in crib mattresses come from the foam stuffing, usually made of polyurethane or polyester. Studies from the last ten years suggest that exposure to these chemicals increases the risk of asthma and lung infections in young children.6 7 A study from 2014 revealed that infants may be at greater risk from the chemicals in crib mattresses than adults for several reasons: their small size means there is less distance between a baby’s body and the mattress, and babies generate more body heat while sleeping which causes more chemicals to be released into the air that they breathe. Also, babies sleep more hours a day than adults do, lengthening the time they are exposed to the mattress chemicals.8

These findings have important implications for children’s health and are why previous flame retardants, such as brominated “Tris,”were banned from use in children’s pajamas in the late 1970s and chemicals called PentaBDE and OctaBDE were phased out of commercial products, beginning in 2004.9 10 Despite these laws, we are still exposed to these and even more harmful chemicals. Why? Because banned chemicals are replaced by new chemicals that we don’t yet know much about. As shown in recent studies, these new chemicals can also be dangerous, and in some cases may be more dangerous. Researchers found higher-than-expected levels of one such chemical, organophosphate esters, in the outdoor air in 5 sites around the U.S. Great Lakes. This new chemical was found in amounts 100 to 1,000 times higher than older PBDE’s.11

Even after flame retardants are phased out, we keep getting exposed when we use old furniture passed on to family members, or sold at garage sales. Because there is no standard process to safely dispose of furniture containing flame retardants, these chemicals remain in our environment via discarded furniture, dust, and air.2 Flame retardant chemicals can even be measured in tree bark. Research shows the highest levels are in densely populated areas, such as Toronto, Canada, but high levels are also found in remote regions of Indonesia and Nepal.12

Researchers at Duke University led a national study to identify flame retardant chemicals in the polyurethane foam used in couches. TDCPP was the most commonly detected flame retardant, often used to replace PentaBDE and OctaBDE in couches manufactured after their 2004 phase out. TDCPPcan cause cancer and is very similar to the Tris that was banned decades ago. Of the 102 couches tested, researchers detected toxic flame retardants in 85% of them.13

In a second study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute, dust samples were collected from 16 homes in California. House dust is the primary way Americans are exposed to toxic flame retardants, by inhaling and ingesting them.1 Researchers found Tris in 75% of the homes despite its ban from children’s pajamas more than 30 years ago and its listing in California as a chemical known to cause cancer.

California has a higher furniture flammability standard than other states, known as Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117). Because of its large size, it is often easier for companies to follow California’s standards for all their products, not just those sold in California. Manufacturers also make their products comply with TB117 to protect themselves against law suits.14 But, as a result, they are risking consumers’ health by exposing Americans to higher levels of flame retardants in their homes than they would otherwise be.15

In general, California’s stricter standards (on organic foods and on air quality, for instance) have paved the way for protections across the country, but in the case of flame retardants, their standards have been harmful.

We all depend on government regulators to keep us as safe as possible, by making our homes, cars, airplanes, foods, and medicines as safe as possible. Unfortunately, current standards for flame retardant furniture are not based on solid research.16 Fortunately, California has responded to criticisms of their standards by adopting new guidelines in November 2013 based on the latest research. The new guidelines require upholstery and fabric covers to be smolder proof, a new test that simulates fires from a lit cigarette. The changes are meant to more accurately reflect the situations that usually lead to fires in homes, and make it possible for manufacturers to use lower amounts of less toxic chemicals. As a consequence, manufacturers will use different, and presumably safer, flame retardants for products sold in California and across the country. The changes went into effect in January 2015.17 18

Since many of us can’t buy all new furniture to help reduce exposure to these toxic chemicals, we need to try to keep our homes as dust free as possible. Remember, as these flame retardants are released or shed from upholstered furniture and other household products, they accumulate in house dust. Vacuum regularly, use a wet-mop, and wash your hands frequently. Have young children who spend a lot of time on the floor wash their hands regularly, too.

If you are thinking of buying a new mattress or furniture, the Green Science Policy Institute provides a reference guide for furniture made without added flame retardants.19 There are now also many “green” furniture companies that use all natural and non-toxic materials like wool and organic cotton that are not only better for you and your family, but also for the environment. In 2015, Ikea, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Ashley Furniture industries Inc. and Macy’s Inc. stated they would ban flame retardants from all their furniture, although it is not clear when the bans would be in place.20 21 Keep in mind that not all furniture comes with a tag outlining what it is made from. You may want to check online to find out more before you buy furniture that could expose yourself and your loved one to chemicals for years to come.

The bottom line is that reducing dust in your home, maintaining or replacing old furniture and making careful decisions about new purchases are important steps for keeping a healthy home!

  1. Dodson, R. E., Perovich, L. J. et al. After the PBDE phase-out: A broad suite of flame retardants in repeat house dust samples from California. Environmental Science & Technology 2012.  
  2. Stapleton, H. M., Sharma, S. et al. Novel and high flame retardants in US couches reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE phase out. Environmental Science & Technology 2012.  
  3. Stapleton, H. M., Sharma, S. et al. Novel and high flame retardants in US couches reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE phase out. Environmental Science & Technology 2012.  
  4. 3-D Images Show Flame Retardants Can Mimic Estrogen in NIH Study. (August 19, 2013). National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from href=”http://www.nih.gov/news/health/aug2013/niehs-19.htm”>http://www.nih.gov/news/health/aug2013/niehs-19.htm. (Accessed August 23, 2013).  
  5. Chen, A., Yolton, K. et al. Cognitive deficits and behavior problems in children with prenatal PBDE exposure. Presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting 2013. Abstract located at http://www.abstracts2view.com/pas/view.php?nu=PAS13L1_3550.8 (Accessed May 7, 2013).  
  6. Rumchev K, et al. Association of domestic exposure to volatile organic compounds with asthma in young children. Thorax, 2004.  
  7. Franklin PJ. Indoor air quality and respiratory health of children. Paediatric Respiratory Reviews, 2007.  
  8. Boor B, et al. Infant Exposure to Emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds from Crib Mattresses.Environmental Science and Technology. 2014.  
  9. Dodson, R. E., Perovich, L. J. et al. After the PBDE phase-out: A broad suite of flame retardants in repeat house dust samples from California. Environmental Science & Technology 2012.  
  10. Stapleton, H. M., Sharma, S. et al. Novel and high flame retardants in US couches reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE phase out. Environmental Science & Technology 2012.  
  11. Salamova A, Ma Y, Venier M, and Hites RA. 2013. High Levels of Organophosphate Flame Retardants in the Great Lakes Atmosphere. Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Accessed October 7, 2013.  
  12. Salamova, A., and Hites, R.A. Brominated and chlorinated flame retardants in tree bark from around the globe. Environmental Science & Technology 2012.  
  13. Stapleton, H. M., Sharma, S. et al. Novel and high flame retardants in US couches reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE phase out. Environmental Science & Technology 2012.  
  14. The Green Science Policy Institute. Cancer free couches. http://www.greensciencepolicy.org/cancer-free-couches (Accessed December 21, 2012).  
  15. Stapleton, H. M., Sharma, S. et al. Novel and high flame retardants in US couches reflective of the 2005 PentaBDE phase out. Environmental Science & Technology 2012.  
  16. Whaley, Paul. “Debating the environmental costs and safety gains of use of flame retardants.” Health and Environment. http://healthandenvironmentonline.com/2013/01/16/debating-the-environmental-costs-and-safety-gains-of-use-of-flame-retardants/ (Accessed January 17, 2013).  
  17. California Department of Consumer Affairs: Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings, and Thermal Insulation. Proposed Regulations. href=”http://www.bhfti.ca.gov/about/laws/propregs.shtml”>http://www.bhfti.ca.gov/about/laws/propregs.shtml. Accessed November 22, 2013.  
  18. Know your environment. Protect your health. Five Couches Without Fire Retardants You Can Buy Right Now. http://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2015/03/five-couches-without-flame-retardants-you-can-buy-right-now (Accessed January 8, 2016).  
  19. The Green Science Policy Institute. Furniture without added flame retardants: Fire safety without harm. http://blog.greensciencepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/FlameRetardantFreeCouches.pdf (Accessed December 19, 2012).  
  20. The Wall Street Journal. Why Chemical Firms Are Seeking More U.S. Regulation. http://www.wsj.com/articles/trade-groups-for-chemical-firms-in-a-twist-seek-more-u-s-regulation-1450348202 (Accessed January 5, 2016).  
  21. Bangor Daily News. Maine Woman Celebrates Macy’s pledge to stop selling furniture with flame retardants. http://vitalsigns.bangordailynews.com/2015/10/22/public-health/maine-woman-celebrates-macys-pledge-to-stop-selling-furniture-with-flame-retardants/ (Accessed January 5, 2016).