Majority of Couches in New Study Contain Toxic Flame Retardants: Flame Retardants Associated with Cancer, Hormone Disruption And Neurological Harm


Berkeley, CA – A new Duke University and UC Berkeley study published today in Environmental Science & Technology found that 85% of the couches were treated with chemical flame retardants, which are either toxic or lack adequate health information. Of the 102 couches tested, 41% contained chlorinated Tris (or TDCPP), a cancer-causing flame retardant removed from baby pajamas in the 1970s, while another 17% contained the globally-banned chemical pentaBDE.

Many of the flame retardants found in couches are associated with hormone disruption, neurological and reproductive toxicity and/or cancer in hundreds of animal studies and new human health findings document reduced attention, fine motor coordination, and IQ in children exposed to furniture flame retardants.

“Hard to believe, 35 years after our research contributed to removing  chlorinated Tris from children’s sleepwear, our current study suggests that more than a third of Americans couches contain this same toxic flame retardant,” said Dr. Arlene Blum, co-author of the study and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. “And sadly enough, many Americans could now have increased cancer risks from the Tris in their furniture.”

The retardants continuously migrate out of furniture foam into house dust. The dust can then be ingested by pets and people, especially small children who are close to the floor and put their hands into their mouths. In a new Silent Spring Institute paper, also published today, most homes studied were found to contain harmful retardants at levels above federal health guidelines. According to Robin Dodson, the first author, “Our study of flame retardants in homes found two different cancer-causing Tris flame retardants in the dust inside all of the homes we studied.”

One likely cause is a California flammability standard which requires polyurethane foam used in furniture to withstand a 12 second small open flame test. This standard, called Technical Bulletin 117 or TB117, is currently met by the use of chemical flame retardants, most commonly chlorinated Tris.

And although TB117 is a California regulation, the study found that 94% of couches purchased outside California during the last 7 years also contained flame retardants, indicating that TB117 has become a de facto national standard.

New research shows these chemicals may be harming our children. “After measuring blood levels of pentaPBDE flame retardants in hundreds of mothers during pregnancy and in their children seven years later, we found links with decreased fertility and altered thyroid hormone levels in the mothers as well as lowered birth weight, poorer attention, fine motor coordination and IQ in the children” said UC Berkeley public health professor Brenda Eskenazi. “Thus, for the health of our children, we should try to prevent unnecessary exposure to such flame retardants.”

Ironically, the chemicals, in quantities used to meet the California furniture flammability standard TB117, have no meaningful effect on fire safety as demonstrated in tests conducted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Underwriters Laboratories and independent fire scientists. “The fire just laughs at these chemicals,” according to Dr. Vytenis Babrauskas, a leading fire safety engineer. “Given their toxicity, it’s really the worst of both worlds.”

The flame retardants themselves will burn in a few seconds and when they do much greater quantities of toxic gases can be produced. “It is the exposure to toxic gases, soot, and smoke during combustion that is responsible for most fire deaths and injuries, according to National Fire Protection Association data,” says Dr. Donald Lucas, a combustion scientist from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley.

Unfortunately for concerned consumers who would like to buy furniture without flame retardants, nearly all of the couches with a TB117 label contained flame retardants, and two thirds of the couches without this label still contained them. “It is exceedingly difficult for consumers to distinguish a toxic couch from one without flame retardants,” said Dr. Veena Singla, of the Green Science Policy Institute. “Unless you can afford to buy expensive organic furniture, there is no easy way to know if your couch is free of flame retardants.”

 A study published earlier this year by lead author Dr. Heather Stapleton of Duke University suggests that levels of pentaBDE on toddlers hands can be related to the blood levels in their bodies. Several other studies found that toddlers contain up to three times the level of flame retardants compared with their moms. “As a parent and physician, I look at my two young children frolicking on our couch, and I hold a deep concern about the potential harmful health effects of toxic flame retardants,” said Dr. Cynthia Li.

Surprising as it seems, there is no requirement to prove that chemicals are safe before they are used in consumer products.  The good news is that California is modernizing the flammability standard that  leads to the use of these flame retardants. Last June, Governor Jerry Brown called for a new furniture standard TB117-2012 that would improve fire safety without the need for flame retardants. If these changes are implemented, it should be possible to buy fire-safe and healthy, non-toxic furniture by next summer.

Furniture manufacturers such as IKEA support this change.  “At IKEA, we have numerous testing and specification policies in place to make sure our products are free from harmful chemicals,” says Malin Nasman, Product Requirements and Compliance Specialist at IKEA US.  “We welcome this revision of TB117, which will hopefully enable IKEA to design upholstered furniture that is flame resistant without the use of flame retardant chemicals.”


Learn how to “Reduce the Toxics in your Home” or contact us for talking points and a fact sheet. For more information see the New York Times Magazine “How Dangerous is Your Couch”, the Chicago Tribune investigative series, Playing with Fire, and Nicholas Kristof New York Times column Are You Safe on that Sofa?

The Green Science Policy Institute (GSP) provides scientific information to government, industry, and non-governmental organizations to facilitate more informed decision-making about chemicals used in consumer products in order to protect health and the environment world-wide.

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