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The Couch Cleanse: Flame Retardants Are a Major Hazard

For related articles and information, please visit OCA's Health Issues page and our Coming Clean Campaign page.

Distorted science. Fabricated watchdog groups. False testimonies. Decades of public deception. It's the stuff of a summer blockbuster - but truth is stranger than fiction, they say.

And so it is with the story of how, over the course of nearly 40 years, flame retardant substances ended up in nearly every piece of furniture, every electronic, every household ware and article of clothing in the U.S. In a four-part series from 2012, the Chicago Tribune used thousands of government, scientific and internal documents to expose the intricate web of lies that made it possible for chemical companies to fill American homes (cars, classrooms, hospitals ) with compounds known to cause cancer, disrupt sexual and neurological development and impair fertility.

But things seem to be moving in a new, less toxic direction as the California law that has required California manufacturers to include flame retardant chemicals in their products, the law that essentially set the national standard for furniture production since 1975 -Technical Bulletin 117 - was revised last year to allow California manufacturers to produce upholstered furniture without flame retardant foam. The revised standard, TB 117-2013, went into effect on Jan. 1, giving many environmentalists, toxicologists and concerned citizens hope that the Golden State will again lead the way - this time on a less poisonous path. And taking things one step further, if everything goes well on the floor of the California Senate in the last week of August, furniture manufacturers who sell in California will also be required to label whether furnishings do or do not contain flame retardant chemicals, yet another promising step forward for the nation as a whole.

"Chemicals are continually coming out of furniture and dropping into dust and you get dust on your hands and you get [the chemicals] in your body," says Arlene Blum, an environmental scientist and executive director and founder of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, Calif. Blum conducted research in the late 1970s that led to a flame retardant known as chlorinated tris being removed from children's pajamas because the compound was capable of damaging DNA and perhaps causing cancer. Blum founded the institute in 2008 after she learned that the same compound was being used in furniture and baby products. Blum has since been working to stop the use of flame retardants in home furnishings and children's products.

"California is the only state that can make flame retardant laws easily because we're the only state that has a bureau," Blum says. "After our great earthquake and fire in [1906, California developed] a Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation that could make fire standards, and no other state has that. In the '70s   the idea came about that maybe we should have a standard for furniture, but it turns out it was not a good standard. I think TB 117 was done out of good motives, but it has not been a good standard."

The original standard required California furniture manufacturers to use foam that could withstand a small open flame, like that of a candle, for at least 12 seconds - the material failed if it ignited. To avoid failing the "open flame test," manufacturers used ominous-sounding halogenated flame retardants containing chlorine or bromine bonded to carbon (like chlorinated tris or penta-BDE).

And while, as Blum says, no other U.S. state has any comparable standard, California's market is so large that manufacturers across the nation chose to meet what was essentially the most stringent standard in the country in order to produce efficiently.

TB 117 not only mandated the use of flame retardant chemicals in the foam padding of upholstered furniture in California, but also its application on foam used in baby products. And use of chemical flame retardants spread to more products. Research from the Green Science Policy Institute found that penta-BDE was being used at levels of 3 to 6 percent of the weight of a piece of foam (that's often measurable in pounds of chemicals injected into home furnishings). Octa-BDE was being used in plastics for circuit boards and small appliances, and deca-BDE was used for televisions and computer casings as well as in textiles.    


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