Fear of fires, especially from lit cigarettes, helped ignite the decades-long practice of adding fire retardant chemicals to furniture and other household items. But evidence that some of the chemicals could cause cancer or other health problems eventually led to a protracted fight to get them out of furniture. Now couches made in 2014 could hit the market flame retardant–free. Their chemical cousins, however, are still routinely doused on today’s electronics.

A smorgasbord of synthetic chemical retardants came of age in the era of boxy cathode-ray tube television and their bulky, flammable casings. Although electronics are now much smaller and thinner, flame retardants are still infused into or onto electronic circuit boards and casings. Less plastic casing means less fuel for a fire, but the use of highly flammable lithium ion batteries represents other risks, contend flame retardant proponents. And yet in recent years it’s become apparent that flame retardants used on furniture provide no meaningful protection. Is the story the same for our televisions, cell phones and laptops?…

Dina Fine Maron