Toxic Flame Retardants Are Found In The Vast Majority Of U.S. Couches, Research Finds

A new study from Duke University has found that a large proportion of the couches in the U.S. contain toxic or untested chemical flame retardants that likely are tied to common modern diseases and health problems. Of course flame retardants have been widely used for a vast number purposes over the last century, and their long persistence in the environment and accumulation in the food chain guarantees that there are many ways that people can be exposed to these chemicals, not simply through couches. One of the chemicals detected in the new study, “Tris,” is a chlorinated flame retardant, that based on animal studies is very likely a human carcinogen.


“Tris was phased out from use in baby pajamas back in 1977 because of its health risks, but it still showed up in 41 percent of the couch foam samples we tested,” said Heather Stapleton, associate professor of environmental chemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“More manufacturers in recent years are treating their couches’ foam padding with chemical flame retardants to adhere to California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117), she said. TB 177 requires all residential furniture sold in California to withstand a 12-second exposure to a small open flame without igniting, to help reduce deaths and injuries from accidental home fires. Over the years, the statewide standard essentially has become a de facto national standard, due to the economic importance of the California market.”

Importantly though, manufacturers are often not even aware of what chemicals are used in their products. The majority of manufacturers simply buy their foam padding from a vendor, and the vendor in turn “buys the chemicals used to treat it from another vendor. The identity of the chemical flame retardants often gets lost along the way, or is protected under law as proprietary.”

For the research, an analysis of “102 polyurethane foam samples from couches purchased for home use in the United States between 1985 and 2010” was done. “They published their findings in a peer-reviewed study released November 28 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.”

“In addition to finding Tris, the tests revealed that 17 percent of the foam samples contained the flame-retardant pentaBDE, which is banned in 172 countries and 12 U.S. states and was voluntarily phased out by U.S manufacturers in 2005.”

“PentaBDEs are long-lasting chemicals that over time migrate into the environment and accumulate in living organisms. Studies show they can disrupt endocrine activity and affect thyroid regulation and brain development. Early exposure to them has been linked to low birth weight, lowered IQ and impaired motor and behavioral development in children.”

“PentaBDE and Tris were the only flame retardants found in couches purchased before 2005. After 2005, Tris was the most common flame retardant found. In addition, Stapleton and her colleagues identified two new flame-retardant chemical mixtures in more recently purchases couches for which there is little or no health data available.”

“Overall, we detected flame-retardant chemicals in 85 percent of the couches we tested and in 94 percent of those purchased after 2005,” Stapleton said. “More than half of all samples, regardless of the age of the couch, contained flame retardants that are potentially toxic or have undergone little or no independent testing for human health risks.”

“If a couch has a California TB 117 label, you can all but guarantee it contains chemical flame retardants,” Stapleton said. “But this is where labeling requirements get confusing: the lack of a TB 117 label on a couch does not guarantee the absence of chemical flame retardants. It’s not that cut-and-dried.”

The researchers say that there are so many new proprietary chemical flame retardants being introduced that it’s nearly impossible to even identify them all and the products that they are in, much less test them for their effects on humans. And as an important note, the majority of chemicals used in the world, in all manners of products and purposes, have never even had any testing done on them to determine their effects on human health. This is just one part of the wide scale damage that humans are causing to the environments that they live in and ultimately to themselves.

Source: Duke University

Image Credits: Couch via Wikimedia Commons

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