Frequently Asked Questions

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Why has upholstered furniture been treated with flame retardants?

A California furniture flammability standard called Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117) led to the use of harmful and ineffective flame retardant chemicals in upholstered furniture and baby product foam across the US and Canada starting in 1975.

TB117 required furniture filling materials to pass a small open flame test, and flame retardants were added to polyurethane foam fillings in order to comply with the test requirements. TB117 did not account for the role of cover fabrics (where ignition usually occurs) or for the interaction between fabrics and filling materials. TB117 also did not address the leading cause of furniture fires: smoldering ignition sources like cigarettes. TB117 has been updated and replaced by TB117-2013, a “smolder standard” which stops cigarette fires where they start, on the fabric. The new standard provides increased fire safety without the use of flame retardants.

What are the health concerns associated with flame retardants in furniture?

Flame retardant chemicals have been associated with a number of human health impacts, including lower birth weight, reduced IQ, hyperactivity, poorer coordination, reduced fertility, birth defects, hormonal changes, and cancer.

Is there scientific research to back up the information about health problems?

A variety of different flame retardants have been used in upholstered furniture and other products. PBDEs, one family of flame retardant chemicals which were used in the U.S. before being phased out from 2005 – 2013, have been the subject of more than 4,000 studies, and the literature continues to grow. The Green Science Policy Institute compiled a bibliography with hundreds of references regarding the health hazards of flame retardants used in furniture, which is available here. The San Antonio Statement documents scientific consensus about the class of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants. The Green Science Policy Institute also compiled statements from diverse scientific experts regarding the health hazards of the entire class of additive organohalogen flame retardants, which includes PBDEs and many other chemicals. You can read these statements here.

How do I know if my old couch or other furniture contains flame retardants?

If your furniture contains polyurethane foam and has a label stating that it meets California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB117), then it is likely to contain flame retardant chemicals.

Unfortunately, even if furniture does not have a TB117 label, it may still contain flame retardants if it contains polyurethane foam. In our 2012 study of 100 couches, all but one of the couches purchased in California contained flame retardants and 81% of couches purchased in other states contained flame retardants.

As of January 1, 2015, furniture manufactured for sale in California must meet the updated standard Technical Bulletin 117-2013. This new flammability label includes a check box declaring whether the furniture contains, or does not contain, added flame retardants. The following furniture components are included under this declaration: cover fabrics, barrier materials, resilient filling materials, and decking materials. Though this label is not required outside of California, furniture with the TB117-2013 label may be available in other states. Consumers should inform the retailer that they want to purchase furniture without added flame retardants.

A 2016 analysis found that use of flame retardants in furniture has declined in recent years, thanks in part to the new TB 117-2013 and labeling requirements in California.

Please see our post, “Does my furniture contain flame retardants?” for more information.

Since there are no laws that require manufacturers to disclose specific chemical contents to consumers, the only way to know for sure is to have the materials analyzed in a lab. This kind of testing is not readily available for the average consumer.

How can I buy furniture without flame retardants?

To buy furniture without flame retardants, look for a TB117-2013 label that includes a check box stating that the furniture does not contain added flame retardants. Please note that TB117-2013 does not prohibit the use of flame retardants. If you are unsure, ask the retailer and/or manufacturer whether the furniture contains or does not contain flame retardants.

Our handout, Furniture Without Added Flame Retardants, lists some options for buying furniture without added flame retardants. You can also avoid products that contain polyurethane foam: cotton, down, wool, and polyester fillings usually do not contain flame retardants. Wooden and wicker furniture without any filling are other options. You can learn more on our Consumer Page.

In California, you can also refer to the San Francisco Department of the Environment’s list of retailers that offer furniture without flame retardants.

Can I get my product with foam tested?

Scientists at Duke University are examining the use of flame retardant chemicals in furniture. You can be part of the study by sending a sample from your home. Visit the study website http://foam.pratt.duke.edu/ for more information.

Testing for all types of flame retardants is not readily available to consumers as far as we know.

What can I do to reduce my family’s exposure to flame retardants?

If you have inspected the label on your furniture and believe it likely contains flame retardants, it is possible to replace the filling with new filling that does not contain flame retardants. Learn more at http://greensciencepolicy.org/safer-sofa/.

To reduce household exposures, it is important to keep household dust levels down. Flame retardant chemicals migrate out of products and settle into household dust, where they can enter our bodies by hand-to-mouth contact. You can decrease exposure to some toxics by washing hands frequently and by reducing house dust through wet mopping, dusting with a damp cloth, and vacuuming with a HEPA filter. View our flier: How to Reduce Toxics in Your Home. Visit our Consumer Resources page to learn more.

Do slipcovers help prevent flame retardants from leaving the foam?

If furniture filling is exposed (e.g. from wear and tear in the cover fabric), a slip cover may help slow or minimize crumbling of the foam and therefore help reduce the creation of cushion particles that could enter house dust. However, neither slipcovers nor leather upholstery will prevent exposure to flame retardants: the chemicals are not bound to the foam and can travel through a slipcover or leather. The chemicals disperse into the air over time and settle in dust.

You may be able to reduce household exposures by keeping dust levels down, through wet-mopping, or by vacuuming with a HEPA filter. Frequent hand washing can also reduce exposures.

You can download our flier, How to Reduce Toxics in Your Home or visit our Consumer Page to learn more. The Environmental Protection Agency also recently published a fact sheet on how to reduce kids’ exposures to flame retardants.

Is my adult mattress treated with flame retardants?

Mattress manufacturers are not required to disclose presence or absence of flame retardant chemicals.

According to the mattress industry, flame retardants are not generally intentionally used in foam fillings in adult mattresses in the U.S. However, we are aware of mattress samples that were found to contain flame retardants. No comprehensive analysis has been done to evaluate use of flame retardants in U.S. mattresses, but researchers at Duke University reported in 2016 that they detected flame retardants in 22 out of 71 mattress foam samples tested.

Required for mattresses manufactured since July 1, 2007, the federal mattress flammability standard (16 CFR Part 1633) involves a severe and lengthy open flame test. To meet this requirement, inherently fire-resistant barrier materials such as fiber batting or cotton fiber treated with boric acid are often wrapped around the mattress. You can learn more in this 2007 Chicago Tribune article. If your mattress is not wrapped with a fire barrier material, or you are considering buying a mattress without an exterior fire barrier, ask the manufacturer or retailer whether added flame retardant chemicals have been used.

If you are buying a new mattress, speak with the retailer or manufacturer and ask them about the chemicals used in the mattress. Ask for a clear answer to a question like “does the mattress contain added flame retardant chemicals?” Answers like “meets all safety requirements” do not provide sufficient information.

Is my child’s mattress treated with flame retardants?

Smaller mattresses that contain polyurethane foam, such as juvenile and crib mattresses, may contain flame retardants. There are currently no laws which require manufacturers to provide this information to consumers. Researchers at Duke University reported in 2016 that they detected flame retardants in 13 out of 36 foam samples tested from child mattresses.

Crib mattresses with a TB117 label are likely to contain flame retardant chemicals and should be avoided. However, mattresses produced after January 1, 2014 will not have such a label and are unlikely to contain the chemicals.You should verify with the retailer or manufacturer to make sure. A report on crib/infant mattresses from Clean & Healthy New York provides information on some manufacturers.

You can look for crib mattresses made without flame retardants. For more information on flame retardants in children’s products, read here.

You may wish to avoid other chemicals of concern, like water- or stain-repellants or antimicrobials, when purchasing a new child mattress or nap mat. Learn more about these classes of chemicals at SixClasses.org.

What other children’s products contain flame retardants?

In 2011, we tested 101 foam samples from baby products including nursing pillows, nap mats, and sleep positioners, and found that over 80% contained flame retardants at levels up to 12 percent of the weight of the foam. A 2016 analysis found flame retardants in about half of children’s products tested. With the exception of children’s car seats, most children’s products are not currently required to meet flammability requirements and are expected to be available without flame retardants. You should verify with the retailer or manufacturer.

Is my carpet or carpet cushion treated with flame retardants?

To our knowledge, carpets are usually not treated with organohalogen or organophosphate flame retardants. The federally-required flammability standard for carpets includes a labeling requirement for carpets or rugs that have “had a fire-retardant treatment.” When making a purchase, particularly if considering carpet manufactured outside of the U.S., ask the retailer or manufacturer if the carpet or carpet backing contain flame retardants.

Bonded polyurethane carpet cushion or padding, which currently makes up over 85% of carpet cushion produced in the United States, usually contains flame retardants. This cushion has historically been made from the same foam that is used in upholstered furniture. Flame retardant levels in bonded polyurethane carpet cushion may decrease since the new TB117-2013 standard for furniture has allowed foam makers to decrease production of foam that contains flame retardants. One solution to avoid flame retardants in carpet cushion is to use a fiber or felt pad under carpeting rather than bonded foam.

Consumers can look for very low VOC carpeting.

Please note, carpets are often treated with fluorinated stain repellent chemicals, and certain carpet care and treatment products may also contain highly fluorinated chemicals. To learn more about fluorinated chemicals visit our Highly Fluorinated Chemicals page. You can also read more at Pharos.

Do children’s pajamas/clothing contain flame retardants?

Brominated and chlorinated “Tris” flame retardants were removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s, and it is unlikely that other halogenated flame retardants are used in pajamas. There is a federal flammability standard (required by the Consumer Product Safety Commission) that all children’s sleepwear in the U.S. must meet. There is no requirement in any state (including California) to disclose the identities of chemicals used to treat children’s sleepwear.

This is our understanding of flame retardants and children’s sleepwear in the U.S.:
Sleepwear for children under 9 months of age, and pajamas that are tight fitting for any age do not need to contain added flame retardants as they don’t need to meet the federal standard. When buying children’s pajamas, look for a sewn-in label with language like, “garment should fit snugly,” “is not flame resistant,” or “loose fitting garment is more likely to catch fire.” This label indicates that the fabric was probably not treated with flame retardants. Items labeled “not intended for use as sleepwear” are also unlikely to contain flame retardants. Be sure to follow the instructions – it is very important for children’s sleepwear to fit snugly.

Cotton or other natural fabrics are sometimes treated with flame retardants. Common chemicals used for this are phosphate-based, like tetrakis hydromethyl phosphonium chloride (THPC or Proban or Securest).

Avoid items that have labels with care instructions telling you how to maintain the garment’s flame resistance.

Where can I find out more about flame retardant chemicals?

A good place to start is our Flame Retardants page.

Will the flame retardants have completely dissipated from a very old couch?

We have only done one anecdotal study on this question, and it appears the answer is no. After more than 20 years, flame retardants were still present in the cushion we tested.

Do polystyrene beads contain flame retardants?

Polystyrene beads can be found in bean bag chairs, decorative pillows, and stuffed animals. Many polystyrene products do not contain flame retardants; but some polystyrene beads may contain flame retardants, for instance those intended for use with bean bag chairs.

An alternative, natural filling option for bean bags might be buckwheat hulls.

Do bedding accessories contain flame retardants?

There are no flammability standards that necessitate the use of flame retardants in bedding accessories. Researchers at Duke University reported in 2016 that they detected flame retardants in 31 out of 106 foam mattress pad samples tested and in 9 out of 32 foam pillow samples tested. Use of flame retardants in these kinds of foam or foam-filled products may be decreasing thanks to California’s updated furniture standard TB117-2013, which has enabled foam producers to reduce or stop use of added flame retardants. To avoid flame retardants, you can choose pillows made of materials like cotton, down, wool, or polyester fiber (and without a foam core).

Egg crate mattress toppers are usually uncovered and may contain flame retardants.
Here are three safe, flame retardant-free alternatives:
– no topper
– add an extra polyester mattress pad for added cushioning
– a natural wool pad

Do yoga mats contain flame retardants?

Standard yoga mats are made of PVC and contain phthalates. Some are labeled as nontoxic because they do not contain phthalates, but they are still made of PVC. We have seen test results for only three yoga mats, and they did not test positive for flame retardants, but chlorine levels were high as would be expected with PVC. There are non-PVC options that cost more, for example, natural rubber.

Is polyester safe in consumer products?

To our knowledge, polyester fiber does not represent a health risk for the consumer. It is generally not treated with flame retardant chemicals.

I have a great certification method, brand, or product with no added flame retardants or other harmful chemicals--can you endorse it, or share on your website?

Unfortunately, we are not able to offer specific brand, product, or certification endorsements. As a small organization, we do not have the resources necessary to investigate these claims and track them over time. We encourage and appreciate all efforts by businesses, manufacturers, and individuals towards reducing toxics for a healthier world, and hope the resources provided on our website can help in your work.

Green Science Policy Institute provides information to the public as a service. The content of our website, publications, and correspondence should not be considered advice or endorsement and is for informational purposes only. As a scientific institute, we strive for accuracy; however, occasional errors are unavoidable. Green Science Policy Institute is not responsible for decisions made based on information we provide.