The Truth About Flame Retardant Furniture

Toxic chemicals from flame retardant fabric build up in household dust.

By Emily Main

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Flame Retardant FabricRemember this the next time you forget to dust: All those dust bunnies could be exposing you to potentially hazardous chemicals. Numerous studies have found that chemicals from pesticides to phthalates (allergenic components of synthetic fragrances) build up in household dust, and a new study just published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives finds that chemicals designed to prevent furniture from going up in flames are in your dust as well—and those chemicals could prove toxic.

The Details:

The study, which took place at a Belgian University, looked at blood levels of hexabromocyclododecanes (HBCDs), a flame retardant common in Europe, in 16 university students. For the first part of the study, students were asked to keep track of all the food they ate; flame retardants build up in the fatty tissue of animals, leading some researchers to suspect that food is a major source of flame-retardant exposure. Duplicate samples of those foods were tested for HBCD levels. For the second part of the study, the scientists gathered samples of dust from the students' rooms that were later tested for levels of one type of HBCDs (the second type of the chemical occurs largely in food). During each phase, they compared HBCDs in the students' blood with levels found in the dust and the food. All blood samples had high levels of HBCD, and while there were very low levels found in food, the dust samples had significantly higher levels.

What it Means:

HBCDs haven't undergone very much safety research, but animal studies have found that they can interfere with reproductive systems and mess with the liver and thyroid. While Europeans use them commonly as fabric coatings, 80 to 90 percent of their use in the U.S. is in construction for Styrofoam insulation panels. Just because those insulation panels are behind walls doesn't mean you don't inhale the chemicals with which they're treated, says Arlene Blum, a visiting scholar in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute. In addition, adds Blum, U.S. manufacturers treat furniture with even worse offenders: either tris (2,3,-dibromopropyl) phosphate, a known cancer-causing agent, or a trademarked mix of four chemicals called Firemaster 500, which she says hasn't been adequately tested for safety. "In the U.S., we the have highest levels of flame retardants in our dust and in our bodies."

Despite the fact they've been in use since 1980, there's little evidence that these chemicals are making a difference in the number of fires that take place. In fact, Blum says, "[chemical] flame retardants aren't very useful in reducing fire hazards because they slow fires by just a few seconds."

There's no federal law that requires furniture be flame-retardant, so you can avoid the unknown and toxic side effects of chemicals by:

  • Avoiding California flame-retardant guidelines. California has the strictest laws around flame retardants in the country, and they include not only mattresses but also furniture and baby products. Check the label and avoid products that comply with California's fire-safety standards.
  • Choosing wool and organic cotton. Flame-retardant chemicals make up 5 percent of the weight of polyurethane foam, the petroleum-based fill used in virtually every sofa, loveseat, and club chair made today. Furniture made with wool or organic cotton furniture is free of hazardous chemicals.
  • Cleaning thoroughly and often. Vacuuming both your floors and your furniture regularly will help reduce your exposure to hazardous flame retardants, as will damp-mopping your furniture. Look for a vacuum with a HEPA filter to prevent dust from being spewed back into the air.
  • Maintaining your smoke detectors. "Dealing with the source of an ignition is more effective than treating everything with chemicals," says Blum. Part of that includes making sure you have a properly working smoke detector with charged batteries. Replace your detector's batteries every six months (daylight savings time is usually an easy reminder to do so).
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