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New Year Brings New, Less Toxic Choices in Household Furniture

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Shopping for new furniture and following some big New Year’s deals?  You might consider waiting a while, or at least asking the right questions before you buy, according to experts in science and sustainability.  The United States has entered a new era of environmental safety in household furniture. At some point soon, you should be able to buy a new couch without the toxic flame retardants that have been troubling health professionals, environmental scientists, and parents.


January 1st, 2014 was the effective date for businesses selling furniture in California being allowed to meet a safety standard without necessarily using toxic flame retardants.  Because California is the nation’s largest consumer market, when industry has to make changes for that state, it typically does the same when selling products throughout the rest of the country.  The chemicals of concern have been in the foam cushions of our couches.  According to the latest environmental science, that has exposed our households to toxins linked to a number of health problems, perhaps hormone disruption, development problems and even cancer.

The new California standard allows furniture makers to meet fire safety requirements without adding flame retardant chemicals to the foam.  Researchers have discovered that those chemicals added to the cushions didn’t make the products any more fire safe in the first place.  They’ve even found the chemicals create more toxic gases and soot during a fire.  “In many cases, there is not a proven fire safety benefit, and there is serious long-term harm to our population and our environment,” said scientist Arlene Blum, PhD of the Green Science Policy Institute.  Blum was speaking in the Institute’s latest webinar series.

Some of Blum’s earliest research uncovered the dangers of halogenated flame retardants in children’s pajamas in the 1970s. Although the federal government moved to take those specific chemicals out of pajamas, it has allowed the same substances to remain in other products. Blum explained, “However chlorinated tris continued to be used in furniture and baby products until it was listed by the state of California as cancer-causing in 2012. And indeed for some years it was the major flame retardant used in furniture.  So if any of you have a couch you purchased between about 2006 and 2012 there’s probably a more than 50% chance your couch will be about 5% chlorinated tris in the foam.  So if you have 20 pounds of foam in your couch you might have a pound of chlorinated tris in your home.” Another concern voiced by Blum and others is that one toxic flame retardant has typically been replaced with another which has not been proven safe.

Here’s what to look for.  Chances are, your current furniture has a tag that looks like the one below, noting that it meets standards for Technical Bulletin 117.  That means there’s a very good chance it contains chemical flame retardants, unless the manufacturer can prove otherwise.  Newer furniture may have a tag that mentions Technical Bulletin 117-2113, meaning it is not required to contain chemical flame retardants.  Executive Director Susan Inglis of the Sustainable Furnishings Council says consumers need to ask store salespeople and even the manufacturer to know for sure what’s in your furniture.


Meanwhile, the American Chemistry Council continues to defend the use of flame retardants. It also downplays the concerns raised by body burden studies that show Americans carry these toxins in their blood. On its website the ACC states, “The fact that trace amounts of chemicals are found in a person’s body does not mean there is cause for concern. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes: ‘[T]he measurement of an environmental chemical in a person’s blood or urine is an indication of exposure; it does not by itself mean that a chemical causes disease or an adverse effect.’ Indeed, advances in biomonitoring have made it possible to detect exceedingly small amounts of these chemicals in the body.”  See more at the ACC website.

Numerous research papers, peer-reviewed and synthesized by groups like the Green Science Policy Institute, do point to serious health concerns.  They’ve even studied how dust migrates from our couches into our living rooms, despite coverings over the chemical-soaked foam.  Toddlers are shown to have three times the exposure to these toxic flame retardants as their mothers.  Blum says there is hope for consumers with this latest policy change in California.  “The overall good news is now that flame retardants will not be required, as people gradually replace their furniture with furniture without flame retardants, all of our body levels will go down.”

Some eco-conscious furniture makers have already been meeting safety standards with the use of natural materials instead of foam cushions.  You can find many of them via the Sustainable Furnishings Council’s website.  The change in the California fire safety rule should soon create an even bigger market for furniture without chemicals of concern.  Inglis share that, “manufacturers are really eager,” to create furniture meeting the new standard.  That should include more eco-conscious furniture at all price points.  She encourages consumers to ask at the store level for furniture without toxic flame retardants. Ultimately, Inglis says “it is a matter of supply and demand.”

For those of us unable to upgrade our furniture this year, the best tips the experts can give are to clean our homes to keep dust to a minimum.  We’re also advised to wash our hands and those of small children whom we know will frequently put their hands in their mouths.  Those of us looking for sales should be aware that manufacturers may be unloading lots of inventory meeting the old TB117 standard.

The HBO movie Toxic Hot Seat details America’s strange relationship with toxic flame retardants in our homes.  The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families  coalition has been working to get federal standards ensuring chemicals are safe before they go into consumer products like our couches.  A law working its way through Congress called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act is too weak to protect consumers and wouldn’t even do as much as states like California have on chemical safety reform.

While federal law does little to protect consumers, and while the new California standard is taking effect, consumers should remember to ask these questions before buying:

Does the furniture meet new California Technical Bulletin 117-2013?  

Did the manufacturer meet the safety standard without adding chemical flame retardants?

(This blog does not provide professional medical, safety or legal advice of any kind.  It is provided for informational purposes only.)


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