In 1973, the U.S. government passed a law requiring all children's sleepwear to be fire resistant, believing they were preserving public health and keeping children safe. A mere five years later, scientists discovered the chemical used to make the fire retardant fabrics — brominated Tris — was responsible for rising incidences of cancer, and the chemical was banned by 1977.
However, other flame retardant chemicals continue to be used in baby toys, clothing, carpeting and furniture. Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., is known as one of the foremost experts in the field of fire retardant chemicals.1
In her most recent study, she focuses on four or five chemicals, but acknowledges there are dozens, if not hundreds, of flame retardant chemicals being used in electronics, cars, planes and household items.2
While the European Union has taken a strong stance to ban these chemicals, especially in those used by children, the U.S. has not followed suit.3 One type of flame retardant, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), resembles the molecular structure of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development.
In Stapleton's most recent study from Duke University, she investigated the concentration of flame retardant chemicals found in children living in homes with vinyl flooring or flame retardant chemicals in their couch. These harmful semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) are a subgroup of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with a higher molecular weight.
What’s In Your Couch?
The group of SVOC chemicals include phthalates, PBDEs, PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and pesticides.4 Exposure to PBDEs has been linked to neurodevelopmental delays, obesity, cancer and other diseases.
Stapleton notes,5 “There has been little research on the relative contribution of specific products and materials to children's overall exposure to SVOCs.” This gap in information prompted Stapleton and her colleagues to begin a three-year study of 203 children from 190 families with the primary goal to investigate links between products and exposure, and to determine how the exposure happened.
The team analyzed samples of air and dust from the children’s homes, and foam collected from furniture in each of the homes.6 Hand wipes to collect chemical samples from the hands, as well as blood and urine samples were collected from all children.
From this information, the researchers were able to quantify 44 biomarkers, finding children who lived in homes where the sofa in the main living area contained PBDEs had a six times higher concentration of PBDEs in their blood.7
Children in homes with vinyl flooring in all areas had urine concentrations of benzyl butyl phthalate metabolites that were 15 times higher than in children living in homes with no vinyl flooring. Benzyl butyl phthalate has been linked to respiratory disorders, multiple myeloma and reproductive disorders.
The Fight Continues to Remove Ineffective Carcinogenic Chemicals
This research confirms the results of a previous study Stapleton and colleagues did with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which found children had five times more fire retardant chemicals in their body than their mothers. The organophosphate chemical in that study — TDCPP (1,3-dichloroisoprophyl)phosphate — is used in foam to make sofas, pillows, mattresses and carpet padding.8
California has TDCPP on their Proposition 65 list of cancer-causing agents requiring a warning on all products using it. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) lists TDCPP as a probable carcinogen. Stapleton testified in front of CPSC for a hearing to ban organohalogen flame retardants in consumer products.9
In her testimony she stated that despite changes in the California flammability standard lowering the required amount of flame retardants in foam, the use is not decreasing.
Unfortunately, while Stapleton made an impassioned plea to the commission based on sound scientific evidence, it did not sway the entire board to vote to protect citizens. The CPSC did vote to approve an official guidance document recommending manufacturers reduce use, but passed it by only one vote.10